Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, David Park, Fiction, literary fiction, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 372 pages; 2009.

All good things come to those that wait, which is a fairly apt description for how I felt as I read David Park’s The Truth Commissioner. I considered abandoning the book several times, before everything began to kick into gear somewhere around page 242. That’s a lot of pages to wade through, and a lot of information to hold in your head, before things begin to make sense. It’s worth the effort though.

The story revolves around a Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to heal the scars of Northern Ireland’s past by finding out what happened to citizens who disappeared during the Troubles. It hones in on one particular case in which a 14-year-old boy, Connor Walshe, disappeared, believed killed by the IRA on the basis that he was a “tout”.

The Commission is headed up by Harry Stanfield, a human rights lawyer, especially appointed by the British Prime Minister as the Truth Commissioner because “he has no personal or political baggage to be packed on either side”. But Stanfield, who spent the first 12 years of his life in Belfast, feels no affinity for the place and thinks the process of the Commission is a bit like “an old manged, flea-infested dog returning to inspect its own sick”.

Later we are introduced to three other characters: Francis Gilroy, a former political prisoner who is the newly appointed Minister with responsibility for Children and Culture; James Fenton, a retired RUC detective who now spends his time climbing mountains and helping a Romanian orphanage; and Danny, a young man living in Florida who’s looking forward to the birth of his first child with his Latino girlfriend, Ramona.

The current lives of these four men are explored in rather sizable “pen portraits”, which read almost as if they are standalone stories. This is an interesting approach to take, because it gives the reader a real sense of these people as human beings, rather than as the stereotypical characters one might expect from a book that is about the Troubles (for instance, the Brit, the cop, the IRA leader and the young terrorist). But it also makes for a slightly frustrating read, because you have no knowledge of how these characters are connected, nor how they fit into the nugget of the story, until some 150 pages from the end.

The novel doesn’t hit its stride until the four divergent storylines merge into one. But once the pace picks up it becomes almost thriller-like as you wait for the “truth” to come out: what did happen to Connor and who is to blame?

This is not a book for impatient readers, but it is a rewarding one. Given it’s set in Belfast and explores the notion of relatives reclaiming their dead in a war that raged for 30 years, I had expected the book to focus on politics and religion. But these are mentioned in mere passing, and often with the sense that it was all rather pointless, as these observations by Stanfield attest:

He looks at the faces of those standing outside the drawing office. The wind has whipped their cheeks so that they look as if they bear thin tribal incisions cut in their flesh. And after all, what was it really, except some rather pathetic and primitive tribal war where only the replacement of traditional weapons by Semtex and the rest succeeded in bringing it to temporary attention on a bigger stage?

The Truth Commissioner is essentially a book about people, with foibles and troubled histories, who are trying to find their way in unfamiliar, peaceful terrain. You get the sense that none of the four main characters are bad people, but that they got caught up in events that were “normal” at the time but now, through the lense of peace, look barbaric and wrong. Each of them, grappling with secrets of their own — whether it be Stanfield’s penchant for sleeping with prostitutes or Gilroy’s belief that he’s not cultured enough to be the minister for culture — are plagued by guilt, fear of retribution and denial. Each of them wants a way out. The “truth” isn’t always the answer…

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Iraq, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Wendell Steavenson

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson


Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

When it comes to non-fiction I seem to have made a career out of reading books that explore moral culpability*, and this book, which explores the life and times of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, is no exception.

The author, an American born British journalist, never met the subject of her book, Kamel Sachet, but she brings him to life by interviewing an extensive cast of colleagues, family and associates. What emerges is a man conflicted by loyalty to his country and loyalty to his own individual faith, and, in turn, his conscience.

Using the techniques of literary fiction, Steavenson weaves a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time as she traces Sachet’s rise to power — and his later fall from grace. But, of course, she cannot tell Sachet’s story without also telling the story of Iraq, and, in particular, its recent bloody history, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often in this telling there are so many different battles and violent incidents recounted that it’s hard to keep track of exactly which war Steavenson is making reference to, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter: this is a country with a bloody history and never more so under Saddam Hussein’s rule. (In fact, Saddam’s soldiers were in a lose-lose situation: they could be killed in battle, but if they lost a battle they could be executed under military order. It was up to them to decide which was the easier way to die.)

The book also explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, and how the all-pervasive fear turns good upstanding citizens into quivering wrecks who make poor moral judgements.

I’d like to argue that The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a sympathetic portrait of a man who chose to carry out Saddam’s orders instead of quietly resisting them, but I’m not so sure that is the case. While Steavenson develops a close friendship with Sachet’s wife and children, she refrains from making any overt judgement about the man. Ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine exactly how you feel about him. All I know is that I came to the end of this book feeling such a deeply profound wave of sadness, even writing this tears me up.

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account of the legacy left by Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq. Anyone interested in the so-called War on Terror will find plenty here to intrigue, outrage and shame you.

* Some of my favourite non-fiction books include Gitta Sereny’s incredibly powerful biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, and Sereny’s equally compelling book on Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness. I can also recommend Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (can you tell I love Gitta Sereny?), Blake Morrison’s As If (about the Bulger murder trial) and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (about murderer Gary Gilmore’s wish to be executed for his crimes). And that’s just for starters…

Australia, Author, Book review, Evie Wyld, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘After The Fire, A Still Small Voice’ by Evie Wyld


Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 304 pages; 2009.

Evie Wyld‘s debut novel After The Fire, A Still Small Voice hit the headlines last week when it won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys literary prize, which is awarded to a UK or Commonwealth writer aged 35 or under.

The book, which is set in Australia, follows two men, a generation apart, who bottle up their grief and are forever tormented by it. Their stories are told in alternate chapters.

Frank, who’s in his late 20s, lives in Canberra. When his relationship breaks down he moves north to start a new life as a recluse on the coast. He sets up home in the abandoned shack that once belonged to his grandparents and works part-time at the local marina. But he’s troubled by his past which threatens to unravel his tentative hold on the world.

Leon is the only son of two Dutch immigrants who set up a bakery in suburban Sydney following the Second World War. Their new life in a strange land is forever shattered when Leon’s dad volunteers to fight in the Korean War. Later, when Leon is a young man, he finds himself fighting an altogether different war: he’s conscripted to Vietnam.

The book interleaves these two seemingly disparate stories together to build up a moving portrait of men on the fringes of society who become scarred by battles, figurative and literal. It portrays their sadness, their loneliness and their melancholy in such a touching way it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by it. If nothing else, it superbly captures that space between people that prevents them from talking about the terrible things they’ve done and the secrets that they hold dear.

It’s a terrifically mature piece of work, belying Wyld’s age — she’s just 29. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the male voices she uses throughout the book ring true. And, if that’s not enough, she has all the descriptions of Australia, from the huntsman spiders that curl up inside your clothes to the smell of the eucalyptus wafting on the air, absolutely pitch perfect.

The prose style is effortless, the characterisation superb — she really gets inside the heads of these people without over-explaining anything — and the pacing is spot on. I’ll admit to holding my breath in a few places, because there are certain revelations that I just never saw coming, and I’m glad that the cheap literary stunts that could have been used to ratchet up the tension are clearly avoided.

After The Fire, A Still Small Voice isn’t a perfect novel, but it’s a highly accomplished one and very deserving of its recent accolade. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t collect a whole swag more.

1001 books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, George Orwell, literary fiction, London, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 352 pages; 2004.

How do you review a book that is a true 20th Century classic like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four without simply regurgitating all that has been said before? Is there anything more I can add to the mix? Probably not, but that won’t stop me from telling you just a little about this brilliant dystopian novel, first published in 1949, and why I love it so much.

A dystopian masterpiece

For those of you who have never read Orwell’s masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly), it’s set in London in 1984. The city, which belongs to one of the world’s three superstates, is under Totalitarian rule and at perpetual war. Everyone lives under the watchful eye of Big Brother, children are encouraged to spy against their parents, and to even think “bad” thoughts is considered a crime.

Winston Smith, the narrator, works for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting Times articles so that the ruling Party’s version of history, which changes on a daily basis, is always correct. But Winston is not like everyone else and considers that the continual surveillance and collective worldview is oppressive and stifles individuality. He’s also alarmed by the number of people who are “disappeared” and re-written out of history because they haven’t toed the Party line.

When he meets the intriguing Julia and begins an illicit romance with her, he discovers that he is not the only secret “rebel”. But this liaison does not escape the Thought Police, and Winston is thrown into prison, where the “secrets” of the Party are finally revealed to him.

A blast from the past

I first read this book at school in 1984, but I can’t recall what I thought of it back then. But when I re-read it, circa 1994, when I was studying journalism, I remember, quite clearly, the oppression resonating off the page.

It was a dark, incredibly thought-provoking story, and with every turn of the page I could feel my whole worldview being challenged on many different levels: was history a true record of the past? Was the news media so corrupt? Were wars just a means to stimulate the economy and keep people in jobs? Were the enemies of the West just a conspiracy invented to keep us living in fear?

Fast forward 15 years and I re-read the book as part of my book group last month. This time around, my brain, having already grappled with these new and alarming concepts, now concentrated on whether Orwell’s “predictions” had come true. And because I was less caught up in the overwhelming brilliance of the book’s scope and vision, I enjoyed the narrative, which is quite fast-paced, and the eloquence of the prose, which is sparse without ever becoming boring.

The thing that struck me most, however, was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book, not the least in the following passage:

He remembered better the rackety, uneasy circumstances of the time: the periodical panics about air-raids and the sheltering in Tube stations, the piles of rubble everywhere, the unintelligible proclamations posted at street corners, the gangs of youths in shirts all the same colour, the enormous queues outside the bakeries, the intermittent machine-gun fire in the distance — above all, the fact that there was never enough to eat.

A prescient novel

Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK (in 2006, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people).

By contrast, Orwell’s prediction that the future would be sexless didn’t quite come off, and even the notion that you only had to alter The Times newspaper to rewrite history seems laughable given today’s preponderance of media outlets and formats, including the internet and mobile phone technology.

But, on the whole, this is a remarkable novel, a warning shot from the past, that still resonates and which will continue to resonate long into the future. If you’ve never read this book, I urge you to do so, and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting just to re-experience Orwell’s amazing vision.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, by George Orwell, first published in 1949, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as “one of George Orwell’s most powerful politically charged novels, a beautifully crafted warning against the dangers of a totalitarian society, and one of the most famous novels in the dystopian genre”.

Author, Bancroft Press, Book review, Fiction, Jonathon Scott Fuqua, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘In the Wake of the Boatman’ by Jonathon Scott Fuqua


Fiction – hardcover; Bancroft Press; 308 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The tension between fathers and sons is a much-explored theme in literary fiction, but few present such a tangled, complicated, emotionally crippled relationship as the one depicted in Jonathon Scott Fuqua’s In The Wake of the Boatman.

From the very first page it’s clear that the relationship between Carl Hatcher Steward and his son, Puttnam Douglas, is going to be a lifelong problematic one. It’s 1942, the USA is in the throes of a world war, and Puttnam has just been born.

Days later Helen and the newborn finally arrived home, yet Carl’s anxieties did not abate. Alone in the gray living room of their clapboard rental, their four-year-old daughter asleep in bed, Carl’s thoughts crudely took him off guard. On this oppressive Norfolk evening, the notion came to him so calmly it almost made sense. He should crack his little boy’s neck as gently as possible. It would be like saving two lives.

This is an important glimpse inside Carl’s dark heart. He’s a damaged man who seems unable to love his son. Why? Because he’s ashamed that he has brought a child into the world at a time when “another mouth to feed would not help the war effort” and humiliated because his dodgy knee means he cannot join the Army.

By the time VE Day arrives, three years later, Carl’s hardness has not thawed: he finds himself in tears because it suddenly dawns on him that he does not know how to give his son a hug.

It seemed a completely different act from hugging his wife or daughter. He had gone over to his son with intentions of hugging him, but in the end, hadn’t been able to. Suddenly he felt old, worn, and permanently immovable. He was in a groove too deep to change. ‘Jesus,’ he cried softly to himself. He grasped his nose with his fingers and held his breath.

And yet, despite this acknowledgment of his emotional failings, Carl seems unable to do anything about it. Some 15 years later, as he drives his son to college, it’s obvious that he blames Putt for his own failings. “I’ve given you a toughness that will carry you through a lifetime unscathed. I’ve given you everything I could,” he tells him, before adding: “You’ve never tried very hard to please me. You’ve made it impossible for me to really love you.”

‘You’re a curse. You’re a curse to your mother and me. What have I done to deserve this kind of curse?’
He stared at Putt, as if his son, at that moment, had been floating a few  feet about the Ford’s bench seat. ‘I don’t understand you. You won’t let me understand you.’
Putt glowered at his father. ‘You think it’s just me? That I’m not allowing you to understand me?’ He laughed.
‘It’s not me,’ Carl said, looking ahead at the road, at the hills that were growing longer.
‘You think it’s me,’ Puttnam said again. ‘Nothing’s your fault?’

Any wonder, then, that Putt cuts all ties with his father? Their estrangement serves to fuel Putt’s desire to be successful, and he graduates, becomes an infantryman in the United States Army and later a decorated hero in the Vietnam War.  All the while he keeps in touch with his older sister, Mary, a strikingly beautiful woman who marries a man with more than a passing resemblance to Carl, and his affectionate if slightly scatty mother (interestingly, she calls him “Mama’s boy”).

On the surface Putt is a strong, attractive man, but underneath he’s scrabbling to come to terms with a homosexual dalliance in college and a penchant for cross-dressing. These two secrets, if exposed, will destroy him and so, the anxiety, the disgust and the shame of it, build and build. It is only when his aged father falls ill that he must face the truth about himself, whatever the consequences.

If this sounds like a dark, complicated tale, then you’d be right. But there’s something quite beautiful and devastating about this book, which never resorts to melodrama to convey the tortured, ambiguous nature of Carl and Putt’s relationship, nor Putt’s confused sexuality.

The story is told in the third person — mainly from Putt’s point-of-view — and moves so quickly that time seems distorted. You can turn a page and suddenly find the narrative has moved ahead by years without any real explanation of what’s happened in between. But this is not a quibble. I like Scott Fuqua’s tendency to let Putt’s secrets remain just that. While we come to learn that Putt is confused by his sexuality and ashamed of his desire to wear women’s clothes behind closed doors, these are not laboured and remain hazy, sketchy events, which make them all the more mysterious and intriguing.

By contrast, the formative event in his young life — when he accidentally puts a boy’s eye out with a rock at a local swimming pool when he was just six years old — is mentioned many times, I think because it symbolises Putt’s confused feelings over his masculinity: he’s proud of this one act that proves he can stand up for himself, and yet he’s also ashamed of the violence of it.

In the Wake of the Boatman — the title refers to Carl, the backyard boatman, who builds his own craft that sink upon launch — is the kind of book I did not expect to like. But I found it totally absorbing, incredibly realistic and emotionally hard-hitting. I read it more than six weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it, which may partly explain why this review has been such a long time coming.

As an aside, I have to say the names of the characters in this book are amongst some of the weirdest I’ve ever come across. If Puttnam wasn’t unusual enough, how about these: Milton Pilterpuss, Bertrand Capote, Percy Dishbrower and Thane Forgit. They almost sound computer-generated.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Sloan Wilson, USA

‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ by Sloan Wilson


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 288 pages; 2005.

Sloan Wilson, who died in 2003 aged 83, wrote 15 novels, but his most famous was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, first published in 1955.

I picked this book up several years ago, attracted more by the black and white photograph of Gregory Peck on the cover and the lovely silver spine that is the trademark of a Penguin Modern Classic than the name of the author. Indeed, I had never heard of Sloan Wilson, whom, it seems, had become one of those neglected writers recently championed by the modern literary elite — in this case, Jonathan Franzen, who writes a brief but very good introduction to this edition. (Franzen did something similar for Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters a few years back, which makes me wonder whether that might explain his lack of recent fiction: he’s too busy writing introductions for long-forgotten authors than concentrating on his own literary career.)

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is described as the quintessential 1950s novel, mainly because that’s the era in which it is set and written, but putting aside the sexism and the “traditional” family life — man goes to work, woman stays at home and looks after the children — depicted within its pages, it is still highly relevant and tackles themes and issues that are pertinent today.  For instance, at what point does one acknowledge that it is more important to enjoy one’s work than it is to make as much money as possible from something you detest? When do you stop worrying about the future and start enjoying the present? Should you tell people the truth or tell them what they want to hear? Is rampant consumerism the path to happiness?

The book follows Tom Rath, a veteran of the Second World War, who is married to Betsy. They have three young children and live in suburban Connecticut, but are desperate to move up in the world, to “afford a bigger house and a better brand of gin”.

When Tom leaves his dull but secure Manhattan job and applies for something slightly different — a PR man for the United Broadcasting Company (UBC) — Betsy is surprised. “I’ve never thought of you as a public-relations man,” she says to him. “Would you like it?” “I’d like the money,” is his reply.

By a large stroke of luck, Tom walks into a challenging but cushy job as the right-hand man of Mr Hopkins, the president of UBC, who plans to form a national committee on mental health. It’s not a particularly well paid job, but the opportunities for promotion are immense.

Still, despite the promise of a bright future, Tom is plagued by doubts — he simply does not think he is good enough for the job and he struggles to work out where he fits in.

His life is further complicated by the death of his elderly grandmother. She leaves him a large, crumbling estate, which could potentially be the answer to all his financial woes, but her hired help creates turmoil by contesting the will. And then there’s problems with the local community which could scupper his plans to subdivide the land for extra profit.

All these complications lead Tom — and Betsy too — into a kind of stressed existence, where all they do is work and worry, following a set routine that leaves neither of them content. “There’s something that seems to be hanging over us,” Betsy says one morning. “Something that makes it hard to be happy.”

That cloud hanging over them is Tom’s inability to talk about his war experience, not because he is troubled by the people he killed, but because he had an affair with an Italian women with whom he suspects he has fathered a child. This scene, as Tom and Betsy lie in bed one night, is as good as any at conveying the strain within their marriage:

‘Did you ever kill anyone?
‘Of course.’
‘I mean, did you personally ever kill anyone? You’ve never talked to me about it.’
‘Right now I’m too tired. I want to go to sleep.’
He stirred restlessly and shut his eyes. In the dim light from the window Betsy lay looking at his big hands lying quietly folded on top of the covers. ‘I cannot imagine you killing anyone,’ she said.
There was no answer. Betsy lay looking at him for several minutes before trying to go to sleep. How strange, she thought, to know so little about one’s husband.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is a wonderful story about juggling the work / life balance while still being able to provide for your family. The blurb of this particular edition calls it “a testament to the enduring power of family love” but I’d argue it’s more about being true to yourself, about being courageous and living the life you want to lead, not the life you are expected to lead.

But what I liked about it most, aside from the very human tale told within its pages, is the lightness of touch Wilson brings to the narrative. There’s a cast of well-rounded, occasionally comical characters, with walk-on roles that bring a smile to the face. And he’s very adept at making conversations sound ludicrous but totally believable by turns.

The strength of the narrative also lies in its many threads. While Tom is the main protagonist, we also get to experience other view points — namely Mr Hopkins and the probate judge considering the disputed will. And Tom’s back story, that as a paratrooper in the war, is nicely fleshed out using a series of regular flashbacks woven seamlessly into the main storyline.

I found little, if anything, to fault in this highly entertaining novel. The author has been criticised for the sappy ending, but personally I didn’t mind it, and I’m now keen to seek out the 1956 film version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starring Gregory Peck. And I’ll probably go hunt out his other novels, which all seem to be out of print; if they are as good as this one it will be worth the effort.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Jocelyn Playfair, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, Setting

‘A House in the Country’ by Jocelyn Playfair


A House in the Country

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 264 pages; 2002.

There’s nothing quite like reading a Persephone Book: the weighty feel of them in the hand, the beautiful endpapers (pictured above), the creamy pages and the strangely old-fashioned Baskerville font feels like such a delicious treat.

I’d been saving this one up for a special “occasion”. I figured it would be perfect holiday reading, curled up by the fire in a little cottage in Cornwall, free from the usual schedules and appointments that clutter up my life. Alas, A House in the Country was not the kind of book to be read with the brain in neutral. It’s a deeply philosophical story to mull over and think about. Under normal circumstances I am sure I would have loved it. As a holiday read it failed to win me over.

Set in England in 1942, during the fall of Tobruk, this is a war novel told from a women’s perspective. But, more importantly, it’s a war novel that does not interpret events because, as Persephone points out in its catalogue, it was written in 1944 when the outcome of the Second World War was still uncertain. So, in essence, the flavour of the book is entirely authentic, a kind of postcard from the past that describes what life was like for those in England who were far removed from the battlefields of Europe.

The central character, Cressida Chance, is 38-year-old widow who runs a grand Georgian house in the country. Here she has numerous paying house guests whom she entertains, feeds and looks after, including her formidable elderly aunt, who visits regularly from London, and Tori, a gentleman from an unidentified European country, who has fled the war with nothing more than the clothes on his back.

Throughout the course of the novel Cressida, who is the mother of a
young boy, agonises over the causes of war.

Were humans incapable of happiness, or was it that happiness itself was an invention, a sort of spur, created by man’s instinctive desire to have something to encourage him through a life of drudgery? Could it be that this — this mass frustration — what a hideous expression, she thought — was a fundamental cause of the appalling mess humanity had made of human life?

Similarly she bemoans her fellow countrymen for their indifference to the war. She feels the English are leading selfish lives and are too sheltered from the reality of the horrors happening on the Continent.

People would not give up small personal comforts, they would not
give up the privacy of their homes, they would not give up their
amusements, their games, their use of the car when a bus travelled the
same road, they would not give up their servants, they would not even
give up making toast by electricity until these things were taken from
them by force of law. Most of Europe and a great part of Asia had had
everything, even life, taken from them by force alone. The totality of
their state of war had been violently thrust upon them. The English, by
the mercy of God and the miraculous gallantry of a few young men, had
been saved from the same fate by the skin of their teeth. But still,
still they remained, those people who wouldn’t ‘give nothing up till it
was took from them’.

Even when six bombs drop on her village one Sunday night — the first air raid that the village had endured — Cressida still feels that it has not properly woken the English up to the life and death situation facing their European counterparts.

But the story does not revolve entirely around Cressida and her constant agonising over the war. There is a separate storyline centred on Charles Valery, a military man who survives the sinking of the Alice Corrie by floating on a lifeboat for more than 15 days. Charles has a special place in Cressida’s heart — even though he is not her husband — but to say anything further would spoil the plot for any potential readers.

In essence A House in the Country is an insightful, intelligent novel that grapples with the bigger questions of war. In some places it reads like an essay — a little too preachy, a little too earnest — which might go some way to explain why it does not make the easiest of holiday reads. But if you’re in the mood for something weighty and thought-provoking then this could be the book for you.

1001 books, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Javier Cercas, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Soldiers of Salamis’ by Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean)


Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2004. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.

Soldiers of Salamis is one of those strange novels that blur fact and fiction so that the reader is never quite sure what is true and what is not. Such confusion is compounded by the author placing himself in the story as one of the major characters.

The book revolves around an incident that occurred in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War in which a prominent writer and fascist, Rafael Sanchez Mazas, escaped execution by firing squad. While on the run in the forest, Sanchez Mazas stumbles upon a soldier, who should have killed him but decides to turn and walk away instead. Who was this soldier and why did he make this decision?

Some 60 years later, these questions — and the botched execution — haunt a Spanish journalist, Javier Cercas, who decides to find out what really happened.

The first part of Soldiers of Salamis tells of Cercas’s investigation of the event; the second is the resultant biography of Rafael Sanchez Mazas based on the anecdotal evidence he has acquired; and the third is the journalist’s quest to track down the soldier so that he can ask him why he chose to spare Sanchez Mazas’ life that fateful day.

A complex ‘detective novel’

I struggled to really get to grips with this book. I had tried to read it three times previously and, on each occasion, I had not gotten past the first 30 pages. But I made a special effort this time around, if only because I was determined it would not get the better of me.

There’s no doubt that Soldiers of Salamis is an important and original detective novel. It’s an interesting, if weighty, read. It’s quite droll in places but punctuated by unexpected humour that lightens some of the darker moments.

But as much as I enjoyed the book’s themes — myth, memory, compassion, integrity and what makes a war hero — I found it too bogged down in detail (it is filled to the brim with historical references), not helped by my scant knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its major players.

The translator’s afterword, which illuminates much of the events of that time, is, unfortunately, at the back of the book. As strange as this might sound, if you chose to read Soldiers of Salamis I would recommend reading the afterword first, particularly if you’re not a Spanish Civil War buff.

Similarly, a series of explanatory notes at the back of the book would have been better placed as footnotes dotted throughout the text to aid reader comprehension.

Still, the Soldiers of Salamis, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004, is not so difficult that you cannot gain some enjoyment from it. I found part three particularly exciting and raced through it at speed.

‘Soldiers of Salamis’, by Javier Cercas, first published in 2001, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “deceptively innocent look at both sides of the Spanish Civil War” and a “thriller-like investigation of the fascist past”.