Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Into the vast canon of Great War fiction comes another book set in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium. If you’re anything like me you will have read novels like this before, you will have come to learn of the blood, the mud, the barbwire, the stink, the mustard gas and the godawful fear of going-over-the-top, and you will wonder if there is anything left untold about this deadliest time in human history. In other words, is there any point in writing yet another First World War novel? Haven’t we heard all this before?
Like the best war novels, first-time novelist Robert Dinsdale takes a familiar subject and gives it a new twist, just as Erich Maria Remarque did with All Quiet on the Western Front (telling the story from a German perspective) and Sebastian Barry did with his Booker shortlisted A Long Long Way (telling the story through the eyes of an Irishman caught between two wars). In this case, The Harrowing is about two teenage brothers caught up in a war of their own; the First World War acts as a mere backdrop to their doomed and troubled relationship.
The story opens in Leeds, England, in January 1916. William Redmond, the elder brother, has awoken to find himself in hospital recovering from a nasty head wound. The wound, which plunged him into a long coma, was inflicted by his younger brother, Samuel, who inexplicably stoved his head in with a stone while the pair walked across a deserted moor.
Samuel is then banished, by his parents, to fight in the fields of Flanders, even though he is underage. When William discovers this, he vows to join the Chapeltown Rifles in order to find his brother and bring him back.
‘What’s the matter with you,’ snarls the old man [his father]. ‘Don’t you understand what we did for you? It’s finished. You don’t have to go. Your brother is gone, and you’re set to stay.’
And so, Dinsdale sets up a rather brilliant question in the reader’s mind: why would a brother want to kill another? And, more importantly, why would the wronged brother feel it necessary to go out of his way to help the brother that wanted him dead?
The title alone makes it obvious that this is a story based on Christian theology, specifically the “harrowing of hell” in which Christ supposedly descended into hell to forgive all those of their original sin. In an interview on the Faber & Faber website, Dinsdale says:
The implication, of course, is much bigger than the simple story allows. By the time of Christ’s ascension, Judas Iscariot — whose betrayal condemned Christ — was dead by his own hand, and thus damned to his own eternity in Hell. But in his harrowing of Hell, Christ would also forgive the man whose betrayal sent him to his agonising death — in effect, he would reach
out and lead the man who killed him into Heaven.
I think it’s important to grasp this concept to understand William’s actions, although it’s pretty clear within the first 30 or so pages that the siblings are polar opposites: William is the good brother, the saint, while Samuel is the bad brother, the sinner. This is mirrored in their attitudes to the war, established before the incident on the moor, when William states that he wants to sign up because it was “the only good thing to do” but Samuel insists that it’s not for him.
And other people note their differences in character: a drunkard tells William that Samuel was “just a little boy when the Devil called his name”; an uncle confirms that William has “always been a good boy” implying that his sibling hasn’t. This allows you to build up a clear picture of the two brothers, even if it seems a little too simplistic, a little too stereotyped. But later, as events unfold, both behave in ways that are so out of character, you realise that Dinsdale has offered up two very complex human beings full of contradictions and flaws.
By its very nature this is a somewhat grim and oppressive novel, with barely a glimmer of light to illuminate the darkness. But despite this I found myself reading it compulsively, if only to determine what it was that made both brothers behave so oddly. Ultimately, there is no neat ending here, no cut-and-dried solution, but as an exploration of moral courage and human fallibility, The Harrowing is a superb novel that marks Dinsdale as a writer to watch.