I was first captivated by Adam Foulds’ deeply thoughtful and poetic writing when I read his novel “The Quickening Maze” about the poet John Clare. He has a way of capturing the complex emotion of a scene using only a few choice phrases. With this new novel “In the Wolf’s Mouth” he expands upon this talent by producing short evocative chapters that dramatise scenes from WWII. The two primary characters the novel follows are an English officer named Will and an American infantryman named Ray. In the first half of the book we follow the fighting in North Africa. In one instance the battle scenes are actually described in poetry; this reinforces the breathless chaos and intensity of the fighting. Outside of portraying Will and Ray’s internal impressions and perspective with lyrical authority, Foulds employs powerfully direct and meaningful dialogue that brings to life a range of other characters in the novel. The second half of the novel follows the troops as they move to Sicily where they drive out the Fascists and attempt to restore order and stability. Bookending their tales is the story of two Sicilian men who become wrapped up in a mafia battle. Foulds writing shows how the effects of war reverberate throughout time and produce complexly unintended consequences.
Sometimes I get frustrated when reading novels set in a particular historical time period where the author doesn’t give many indicators of the actual events which are being depicted. Without the right amount of knowledge to flesh out the historic significance of what’s happening I’m sometimes left bewildered and that I’m missing out. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily the novelist’s job to give a clear map coloured in by his research. What Foulds does so skilfully is make you feel the events. Even if I felt lost sometimes while trailing through the rampaging storm of battle I always felt thoroughly entrenched in the character’s subjective experience. After all, many of the men fighting or the people whose lands were being trampled through had little sense of what was really going on either.
With vivid intensity he describes the frantic madness of combat: “blasts felt in the soles of the men’s feet, the spasming light in darkness... Ray felt small, and human.” With massive destruction occurring all around Foulds manages to continuously bring back the attention to the vulnerable individual navigating his way throughout what feels like sheer chaos.
Apart from Foulds’ vivid depictions of the battlefield he also accounts for the horrors which occur on the periphery of war. Institutions that have overthrown the fascist occupiers and are meant to be protecting the native population instead sometimes use and oppress them. Specific races of people are rounded up and put into pits to slowly die. Women are made to prostitute themselves for cans of food. Horrifyingly we follow Will throughout the war as his moral convictions soften and he decides “It was usual for soldiers in a war or for gentlemen at various times and places to avail themselves of the comfort of women. This was the getting of experience. This was being a man.” Individual reason is trodden under the masculine mentality of conquest and triumph. Oppressive behaviour is reinforced by notions of a wartime mentality that excuses behaviour that would be considered abhorrent in peacetime.
Foulds also conveys a sobering sense of the lasting psychological effects wartime has upon people’s mentality. “Ray stood next to his friend enclosed in this sadness, knowing he would never be outside it again. This had happened to them all. This was for ever.” Not only does the horror of battle break individuals down physically and psychologically but it has a debilitating effect upon the spirit of those who survive it.
Rest assured that the novel isn’t all blood and gloom. Foulds injects a fair amount of humour into his writing – much of which rises out of culture clashes which result from the mingling of multi-national armed forces and interactions with Sicilians. Also if I ever travel to Palermo I don’t think I’ll be able to not think of this spectacularly evocative description of the place: “Palermo had an air of Miss Havisham’s madness about it, grandly baroque and broken up with sudden sky and heaps of rubble.”
Near the end of the novel there is a climatic scene which brings the profound issues raised throughout the book to a head. The fast-paced intensity of “In the Wolf’s Mouth” is supported by Foulds’ beautiful prose and sophisticated ability to shed light upon society’s worst behaviour. At one point he writes “Artillery showed this to be true of the whole world. Life was a skin: it could be peeled away like strips of wallpaper with its coherent pattern.” One could say that words have the same detonating power upon consciousness – especially when used by someone with Foulds’ lyrical adroitness.
Here is a short interview with Foulds about this novel: http://www.vintage-books.co.uk/blog/adamfouldsinterview/