Australia, Author, Book review, Egypt, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Sceptre, Setting, Thomas Keneally

‘The Daughters of Mars’ by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 520 pages; 2012.

Australian writer Thomas Keneally is probably best known for his novel Schindler’s Ark, which won the Booker Prize in 1982 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film (under the name Schindler’s List) by Steven Spielberg in 1994. But he has a vast backlist of novels (34 at last count!) and non-fiction books (18!) to his name, some of which have lingered in my TBR for years.

The Daughters of Mars, which was published in 2012, is a powerful novel about two sisters from rural NSW who are nurses during the Great War. I extracted it from my shelves to take with me on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and found it the perfect holiday read. At more than 500 pages of densely packed prose, it kept me entertained for an entire week, which meant I really didn’t need to take any other reading material with me.

The book is one of those proper epics that traverses continents, hemispheres and world history, and tells the story, not only of sibling rivalries, family obligations and small-town jealousies, but of what it was like to go to the other side of the earth to nurse the men so horribly maimed and injured, first in the Dardanelles, then on the Western Front. Keneally brings to life so much of that brutal conflict, I found myself grimacing in places, wiping tears away at others. Yet this book is never soppy or sentimental.

Sister act

Initially, the two sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, have quite a strained relationship. When the book opens, their mother, who has endured an agonising battle with cancer, has died at home, where the pair of them have taken it in turns to offer palliative care. But there are suspicions that Naomi euthanised her using an overdose of morphine that Sally stole from the local hospital in which she works. Yet this “crime” is never discussed openly between the sisters, and this guilty secret hangs over their relationship for the entire length of the book.

But thrown together in war-torn Europe, the Durances learn to depend upon one another in ways they would never have had to back home, and their  cool relationship thaws to one of friendship and love. If that makes The Daughters of Mars sound overly heart-warming, let me assure you that it never quite feels that way.

While there is some romance (each of them meets potential life partners during their years abroad), this is not a saccharine read. Indeed, any leanings towards soppiness is tempered by the brutality they must confront on the hospital ship, where soldiers maimed during the failed campaign at Gallipoli are brought on board for treatment (or to die), and later in the emergency field hospitals and clearing stations near the Western Front, where the injuries treated are more horrific than anyone could ever imagine, thanks largely to the use of gas — tear gas, chloropicrin, phosgene and chlorine, for instance — which burned eyes and airways.

There was a new gas now — mustard gas. It did not cripple the membranes and crimp the alveoli. It burned all membranes instead. It burned the eyes, the face, the mucous membranes and the walls of the lung. The mustard victims arrived at the gas ward stripped naked by the orderlies in reception and carried on a clean stretcher in a clean blanket. For the oily vapours of the chemical which had entered their clothing could burn them through fabric. […] The nurses did what could be done to help the naked and blistered, grasping men to gargle out the poison, to wash it from their noses and eyes. But the bodies of the gassed themselves exuded the poison, and every quarter of an hour nurses must go outside and take the fresh air and cough their throats clear of the communicated venom.

Throughout the novel, medical procedures and treatments are described in exacting — and visceral — detail, which helps to make the carnage, the turmoil and the trauma so vivid. The fact that both sisters are constantly aware of their own mortality is also an important element of the story, for they survive the sinking of their hospital ship and later lose newly made friends and colleagues to all manner of illness and injury. It makes their own ongoing survival seem such a miracle: why are they spared when so many others have not been?

A Great War epic

The Daughters of Mars is a wide-ranging epic that spans the length of the Great War, but what makes it different to other war fiction is its focus on what it was like to be a volunteer nurse far from home during a conflict we only ever seem to read about from a man’s perspective. It’s warm and intimate, and the female voices ring true at every turn.  It’s definitely a worthy addition to that great canon of literature about the First World War.

Finally, I have to mention the ending, which seems to attract a rather mixed reaction from those I know who have read this book. Of course, I’m not going to outline what happens here, but let me say this: I liked it. It has lingered in my mind ever since, and I think that’s a  good sign that it has worked. Many others won’t agree.

For other takes, please see Lisa’s review on ANZ LitLovers and Karen’s review on Booker Talk.

This novel is published in the UK, US and Canada.

I chose it as my book of the month for Waterstones.

This is my 25th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Frances Itani, Harper Collins, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Tell’ by Frances Itani


Fiction – hardcover; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

The aftermath of the Great War on the residents of a small village in Canada is the subject of France’s Itani’s latest novel, Tell, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

I read it back-to-back with William Trevor’s Love and Summer, and couldn’t help but see the similarities between them. Both are gentle, comforting, slow-paced reads, about people quietly getting on with their lives in a small, close-knit community.  Indeed, in KevinfromCanada’s review of Tell, he suggests the book is a Canadian version of the Irish village novel in which  “a collection of ordinary people try to deal with life, even if they have been touched by extraordinary events like war”.

Perhaps the only major difference — aside from setting and era — is that Itani’s book has a slightly more complicated structure, because it interleaves two main narrative threads instead of focusing on  just a single story.

Small-town life

Tell spans just a couple of months — November 1919 to January 1920 — and is set in Deseronto, a small town in Ontario on the edge of a bay.

Here, we meet Kenan, a young shell-shocked soldier, who has returned from the war badly injured. He has a dead arm, has lost the sight in one eye and his face is terribly disfigured. He is too traumatised to leave the house, despite this wife, Tress, offering as much support and comfort as she can muster. The book follows their individual struggles to keep their marriage alive despite the fact that the war has changed both of them — physically and psychologically — forever.

The  second storyline focuses on Kenan’s aunt and uncle, who also live in the village. Am and Maggie have been married for a long time, but their relationship has “stalled” in the sense that they barely have a thing to say to one another. Am seeks solace in his work maintaining the village clock tower and keeping his nephew company, while Maggie spends time with her new friends — an outgoing woman called Zel, and an Eastern European refugee called Luc — both of whom she met through the village choir. It is her relationship with choir master Luc, in particular, which threatens to destroy the fragile state of her marriage.

Family connections

While these two storylines are distinct, they are not separate. Itani fleshes out the relationships and links between the two couples to create a sense of family and shared history, almost as if they represent a microcosm of the village itself.

Not much happens plot wise except to move towards the choir’s annual New Year’s Eve concert, although even that is not the real climax of the novel, which ends with a revelation about a secret long-held by Am and Maggie. But the novel works in terms of the well-drawn characters, for it is their quiet conversations, their actions, the roles they play in village life and their interactions with each other that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages.

Sometimes, however, I felt the music element of the novel — the choir’s rehearsals and the performance itself — were slightly overworked, although I did enjoy the way in which Maggie’s rediscovery of her love for music helped her reconnect with emotions she had buried long ago. Her chance encounter with opera singer Dame Nellie Melba in Toronto before the war is beautifully drawn, if not quite believable.

I also struggled with the revelations at the end. While heartbreaking, they bordered on a sentimentality that seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. But these are minor quibbles.

Tell is a lovely, quietly devastating book that focuses on small moments but never loses sight of the bigger picture: that we must all take responsibility for our actions; that life, despite its many challenges, heartaches and sorrows, is what we make of it; and that failing to deal with the past can sometimes come back to haunt us in unforeseen and tragic ways.

I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. It is currently only available in Canada but will be published in the UK on 6 January, 2015.

Allen & Unwin, Ashley Hay, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Setting

‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ by Ashley Hay


Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 307 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian author Ashley Hay’s second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, is a gentle, elegiac read about universal themes — love and loss, marriage and grief, memory and forgetting — in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Damaged people

Set on the NSW coast at Thirroul in 1948, the book focuses on three main characters, all of them damaged in some way: Annika Lachlan, the railwayman’s wife of the title, who is widowed early on in the novel and now faces the prospect of raising her 10-year-old daughter alone; Roy McKinnon, a poet who is shell-shocked by the war and no longer able to find solace in words; and Frank Draper, a doctor, who was present at the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps and is plagued by guilt because he could not save those he found.

The story spans a year in the life of these characters as they set about adjusting to changed circumstances. But the novel’s main focus is on Annika, who must face two new challenges: coming to terms with the loss of her husband, Mac, and going to work for the first time. Her job, however, is one from which dreams are made: she becomes the sole librarian at the Railway Institute.

She thumbs at the ledgers then, the card files, the neat stacks of paper ranged in the neat wooden trays — a strange topography for her to learn; where things are recorded, how things are traced. She glances at the names of the library’s borrowers, names from church, from Isabel’s school, from conversations in the street. The lady who owns the dress shop has been borrowing Penguin classics. Mrs Padman, Mrs Bower, Mrs Floyd — their husbands all crossed out of the register; probably Mac has been crossed out like that now too. The two owners of the rival shoe shops had both requested a manual of railway signs — how peculiar is that? Her fingers flick towards L for Lachlan: Ani, Isabel — and Mac. And there it is, the list of every book he’s ever borrowed, the line now through his name, the terrible sense of a thing reckoned complete and unalterable.

Dreamy and languid

The Railwayman’s Wife is one of those dreamy, languid books that slips down as easy as hot chocolate. Nothing remarkable happens in it — there’s no real plot other than following Ani’s life for a year — and yet I found myself completely caught up in the story.

There’s an aching sense of loss and melancholia throughout, helped in part by Hay’s limpid prose, but also by the way in which Ani’s memories of her courtship and marriage are interleaved (in alternate chapters) with her present day experiences,  filling the story with poignant reference points. This is also helped by the men’s reactions — of trying to learn to live again in the shadow of a war they wish to forget — which are pitch perfect.

I loved the setting, too — the beauty of the coast, the noise of the railyards — which becomes almost a character in its own right. And the constant literary references — the library Ani works in, the importance of reading to her (and to Mac), the poet struggling to find his voice again — are a treat. There are, in fact, many references to D. H. Lawrence — he actually wrote Kangaroo in Thirroul when living there in 1922 — and W. B. Yeats.

Finally, can I just say something about the cover, which is totally ruined by the horrid woman’s head at the top? It makes this book look like genre fiction, which it is not, and I’m sure many people will simply overlook it in a book shop because “it doesn’t look like my sort of thing”. And yet this is a truly lovely, heartfelt book about what it is to be alive in a world that offers hope — if you choose to find it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chris Womersley, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Bereft’ by Chris Womersley


Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 340 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chris Womersley’s Bereft is a beautifully realised tale about a Great War soldier returning to his homeland to right a terrible injustice done to him and his murdered sister some ten years earlier. It’s occasionally billed as a crime novel, but I think it’s more akin to literary fiction. Whatever you call it, it’s a terrific read — emotional, involving and thought-provoking.

A claustrophobic time

Bereft is set in 1919 in rural New South Wales. The Spanish flu epidemic is in full swing, and borders between states are closed to stop the spread of the contagion.

In this claustrophobic and occasionally terrifying world, we meet Quinn Walker. Quinn has returned from the Great War, where he served in France and Turkey. He is beset by painful coughing fits from having been gassed and has an ugly scar along his jawline. “You should do something about your face. Cover it up perhaps?” a stranger tells him. “You are frightening the children, you know?”

But there is one child that Quinn does not frighten — and her name is Sadie Fox. She is 12 and has recently been orphaned. She’s hiding out in the hills in an old shack awaiting the arrival of her older brother who went to war. She befriends Quinn and urges him to hide out with her. That’s because Quinn can’t show his face in town — and it is nothing to do with the scar on his jaw.

Laying ghosts of past to rest

In the short prologue to this book, we learn that Quinn was accused of murdering his younger sister in 1909. But before he could be arrested he fled the town — and he has been on the run ever since. He knows that many of the townsmen, including his uncle and his father, want him to hang for the crime.

To put things right, a decade on, he needs to get his mother on side and to confess to her what he knows. But his mother is now dying of influenza and has been quarantined in the family home. The only person who visits her inside the house is her doctor. Her husband, fearful of infection, is living elsewhere (he stands on the veranda and speaks to her through her open bedroom window when he visits).

Quinn, feeling he has nothing to lose, slips into his mother’s bedroom and so begins the process of reconciling the past with the present. His mother initially thinks she is hallucinating — “You resemble my son” — but soon comes to realise that Quinn, thought dead on the battlefield (there is a telegram to prove it), has returned.

Quinn’s tragic story then unfolds via a series of secret conversations with this mother and more personal conversations with bold-as-brass Sadie. And these, in turn, are interlaced with flashbacks to his terrible time at war, memories from his carefree childhood and the events that happened on the day of his sister’s murder.

Restrained and eloquent prose

There’s a quiet, understated style to Womersley’s writing. But despite the restraint of his prose, there’s something quite moving about the way in which he depicts Quinn’s predicament, caught between wanting to clear his name and not wanting to hurt his mother, and all the while coming to terms with the terrible things he witnessed at war, the grief he still feels for his sister and the pain of being ostracised by his family.

And his relationship with the mysterious, witch-like Sadie is beautifully captured. She’s a wonderful character — quirky and brave and resolutely independent — who doubles for the sister Quinn once lost.

Of course, as with most Australian novels, the narrative is strongly tied to the landscape and there are vivid descriptions of the scenery and the wildlife and of the “crackle and hum of the bush”. But, for me, the book’s focus on the war and its personal aftermath is its greatest strength, because Womersley so perfectly captures Quinn’s sense of dislocation, his physical and mental torment, and his struggle to keep going when it would be easier to put an end to it all.

Bereft was longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award and the CWA Gold Dagger, and shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year, the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, the ASL Gold Medal for Literature and the Ned Kelly Award for Fiction. It won the 2011 ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the 2011 Indie Award for Best Novel.

Australia, Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, M.L. Stedman, Publisher, Setting

‘The Light Between Oceans’ by M.L. Stedman


Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 400 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In the opening chapter of M.L. Stedman’s extraordinary debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, a couple of lines from a conversation acts as a portent of things to come. It is 1918, and Tom Sherbourne, returned from the Great War, is sailing on board a passenger ship between Sydney and Perth, en route to a new job. During the trip he rescues a woman from the unwanted advances of another returned soldier. He tells her she will no longer have any more trouble from him, but it’s up to her whether she reports the incident formally. “Being over there changes a man,” he says, in an attempt to explain the man’s actions.  “Right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some.”

It is that blurring of lines between right and wrong that later come back to haunt Tom. And, through an amazing coincidence, so, too, does the woman.

Captivating and heart-rending

But let me backtrack. This novel, which is the first by Australian-born, London-based Stedman, was apparently subject to an international bidding war by nine publishers keen to acquire rights to it. I’m not surprised. This is one of those rare books that is so captivating and heart-rending that it leaves you feeling bereft — and cried out — when it ends.

It is set mainly in the 1920s on a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, where the Indian Ocean meets the Great Southern Ocean. Tom works for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service running and maintaining the lighthouse. It is a lonely life, but when he meets and woos Isabel during some rare onshore leave, he brings her back to the island as his wife.

Their idyllic existence is ruined by a succession of miscarriages and a stillbirth that plunge the couple into despair. But one day, a dinghy washes up on their little beach containing a dead man and a “woman’s soft lavender cardigan wrapped around a tiny, screaming infant”.

Despite Tom’s reservations — he’s a stickler for rules and order — the couple decide to keep the baby, whom they call Lucy, and pass her off as their own daughter. Their isolation and lack of contact with other humans, save from the boatmen that bring them occasional supplies, means their subterfuge can be carried out relatively easily.

But when they go on their first shore leave, some two years later, the impact of their decision hits them in an unexpected way: a local widow, ravaged by grief, is still looking for her baby, believed lost at sea.

A secret begins to unspool

As Tom and Isabel’s secret begins to unspool, the small rift in their marriage widens into a gulf — Tom, who has never been comfortable with their decision, now wants to do the right thing and tell the authorities; Isabel, who believes Lucy was a “gift from God”, wants to carry on as if nothing has happened. Who is right? What impact will it have on Lucy if her parents decide to come clean? And will the real mother be any happier having a child she has not brought up returned to her?

The Light Between Oceans charts the impact of one fateful decision on both the “fake” parents and the real mother. It also reveals the impact on others unwittingly caught up in the subterfuge, such as Isabel’s parents, who are much devoted to their only grandchild.

By setting the story in the aftermath of the Great War, Stedman is also able to highlight other issues, such as the importance of family when so many sons had been lost on the battlefields of Europe, and the ways in which small-town communities can band together to ostracise people perceived as being different.

It’s not a perfect novel — I felt Isabel’s motherly devotion was sometimes too contrived and Tom’s never-ending patience unrealistic — but it is an intelligent, page-turning read. And the ending, so beautifully and touchingly rendered, means only a hard-hearted reader won’t want to cry buckets over it.

The Light Between Oceans is published in the UK tomorrow.

Australia, Author, Book review, David Malouf, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Fly Away Peter’ by David Malouf


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.

David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.

A Great War novel

It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.

When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.

One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.

A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.

Trio of characters

This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.

When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.

But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.

The mud and the trenches

His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.

There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.

But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:

Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.

Explores Australian myths

It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.

But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.

I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Randolph Stow, Setting

‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 408 pages; 2008.

I loved Randolph Stow‘s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea so much I read it twice. First, in March, then again last week. And on both occasions I found myself falling in love with the story and wishing it would never end. I’m sure I could read it a third time (a fourth time, a fifth time… you get the idea) and not grow sick of it. It’s one of those beautiful stories that’s easy-to-read but if you dig a little deeper you’ll unravel layers of meaning.

Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

It’s a beautiful, somewhat nostalgic look at what it was like to grow up in one of the most remote areas on the planet, sandwiched between the desert and the Indian ocean, at a time when the Second World War was raging in Europe, and the Japanese were getting closer and closer to invading Australian soil. When the story opens in 1941 the Japanese have yet to bomb Darwin (that happens in February 1942) but the threat feels very real.

Young Rob Coram is just six years old and his life revolves around school, playing at the beach and avoiding his younger sister, Nan. His father, a quiet, solitary man, is stationed at the local garrison and plays little part in his life, and even less so when the family is evacuated to the rural hinterlands. It is here that we are introduced to Rob’s favourite cousin, Rick, who at 20 years old has given up his law studies to join the Army. Rob is devastated.

The book follows both their lives over the next eight years and is divided into two parts: “Rick Away 1941-1945” and “Rick Home 1945-1949”.

It’s the second part which is probably more moving of the two, because Rick’s time as a prisoner of war in Mandalay has scarred him psychologically and he finds it difficult to readjust to normal life. When Rob hears someone describe his beloved cousin as “immature” he adds it to a catalogue of offences in which “everything was wrong with Rick” :

Rick was immature.
He was lazy.
He was a narcissist.
He used dirty language. […]
He talked like Hitler about the Bomb.
He fainted.
He cried in his sleep, and when he had got drunk at Andarra on New Year’s Eve.
He had stayed at the very bottom of the Amy.
He had given up his campaign ribbons to a kid in the street as soon as he got them.
He had not given his campaign ribbons to Rob.

The prose style is simple and perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the boy. It’s incredibly poetic in places, not surprising given Stow’s career (he’s had much poetry published), and his beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the changing seasons, are reminiscent of Irish writer John McGahern:

The dark grey berry-bushes on the vacant land grew green and soft-looking, and put out small, mauve-tinged flowers. Then spring came, loud with bees, and the red berries formed, and in many yards were yellow flowering cassias. When the petals fell, the flowers turned into writhing green snakes full of seeds. The peppertrees bloomed. At Sandalwood the olives drizzled continually, the little green-white flowers and unformed fruit whispering down. In the early mornings the harbour was polished like a blue mirror.

The merry-go-round is a recurring motif, symbolising the unity of the family and the circle of life, two themes the book revolves around (yes, pun intended). Indeed, the beauty of the story is following Rob’s transformation from the naive young boy who thinks the mast of a wrecked ship out at sea is a merry-go-round despite his mother’s claims to the contrary. (It’s only when he manages to swim out to the wreck with a friend as a teenage boy that you, the reader, realise he’s grown up and the emotional impact of this, at least for me, cannot be underestimated.)

The story deals with other themes in varying degrees, including what it is to be Australian and whether it is possible to outgrow your country; the differences between a city and rural upbringing; isolation and belonging; boyhood and adulthood; family and loneliness; war and peace.

It’s not a perfect novel (there are occasional clunky “bits” and some of the ideas and attitudes presented, especially towards aboriginals and the Japanese, are dated and offensive), but it’s a highly readable, entertaining, often funny and incredibly moving story. I’m grateful to Penguin for bringing it back into print because this is the kind of book that deserves a wider audience. I can only hope that they might do the same to Stow’s remaining back catalogue.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Dinsdale, Setting, war

‘The Harrowing’ by Robert Dinsdale


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.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, war

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 304 pages; 2005.

It is 1915 and the Great War has just begun. Ireland, with the promise of Home Rule in its sights, agrees to send its own to fight for the nation.

Seventeen-year-old Willie Dunne, who desperately wants to please his loyalist father, a much respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, joins the Army because at 5ft 6in he is too short to join the force.

But when he came home and told his father, the big, blank, broad face of the policeman wept in the darkness. And then his three sisters, Maud, Annie and Dolly, lit the candles in the sitting-room and they all felt part of the tremendous enterprise because Willie was going to be in it, and they were proud and excited, though it might last a few weeks at most, because the Germans were known to be only murderous cowards.”

Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is sent to the muddied rat-strewn trenches of Belgium to fight for King and Country. Amid the mayhem, the bullets and the blood, Willie and his fellow soldiers eke out a harrowing existence, clinging to life by the flimsiest of threads.

During a brief sojourn home on some well-earned leave Willie finds himself caught up in the political events of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Troubled by what he sees, he begins to question whether he – and the rest of his regiment – have become the enemy of the Irish rebels. When he mentions these concerns in a letter home his father disowns him.

What follows is a heartbreaking account of one young man’s realisation that there is more to life than pleasing one’s father – and one’s country.

I had tears coursing down my cheeks as I read sections of this book filled as it is with moments of such desperate sadness. To know that Willie had endured so much — the  terror and violence and madness of the trenches — only to return to a country that had undergone a bloody revolution and no longer felt like his was very emotional. Coupled with a melancholy romance with Gretta, his childhood sweetheart, this book is a true “weepy”. But don’t let that put you off.

Sebastian Barry’s writing, so wonderfully lyrical and poignant (not surprising given that he is also a poet), is a joy to read. It is rich with the Dublin vernacular, not just in the quoted speech of the characters, but in the telling of the story itself. This makes the story come truly alive in ways that a more distant, staid narrative would not have achieved.

I adored A Long, Long Way on so many levels: its eloquent conversational prose; its ability to move a sometimes jaded reader; and its themes – the futility of war, Irish politics and how one young man learns to think for himself.

Very much reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s much lauded All Quiet on the Western Front, this book, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is a devastating read with a clear, bright ring of truth. I highly recommend it if you wish to read some First World War fiction that has a slightly different slant — that of the Irish soldier caught between two wars.