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When the Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced recently I was surprised to discover I hadn’t read any of the books listed for the first novel category. So I quickly sought to rectify that and picked up “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart without knowing anything about it (which is the most delightful way to approach books sometimes.) It’s an engrossing story of a British civilian named Emma who works in Iraq where she meets an American military man named Adam who she marries. Emma’s dual narrative alternately describes the formation of their relationship in this high-pressured foreign environment and their subsequent time living in Colorado dealing with the many-sided repercussions of war. Hart describes with great power the psychological trauma of war and the complicated grief of losing people in combat. She also dynamically explores how this can lead some people to hastily and tragically stigmatize people from different nationalities and religions. Overall, the story explores Emma’s struggle to overcome her sense of dislocation and understand how examining the many parts of her experiences can help her determine the best way forward. I got fully caught up in the heartrending dilemmas of this novel – especially as it reached its thrilling and surprising conclusion. 

I’ve read so few novels that deal with the impact of modern warfare upon the military and their families. The only other book I can recall is Lea Carpenter’s excellent “Eleven Days” which explores the relationship between a mother and son. “Pieces of Me” is divided into three parts which frame the stages of Emma and Adam’s relationship before, during and after his re-deployment to Iraq while she tries to make a life for herself in America. Each stage comes with its own anxieties and issues showing how the pressures of active duty certainly aren’t restricted to the times when people in the military are in combat. It’s alarming how the repercussions of war can so insidiously intrude upon the relationship between people who love each other. Emma describes how “Iraq has invaded. The space between us has been occupied.” The story explores how difficult it often is for people who’ve experienced combat to express the emotions which arise from their trauma. Instead they become locked in a pernicious silence which leads to misplaced anger and self-destruction.

The story gives a balanced view of the hardships of servicemen in the American military and their families as well as Middle Eastern refugees who've been granted asylum in the US. But it also beautifully shows the sense of community and bonds that arise between people in these groups as they endeavour to deal with how war has impacted their families and friends. Emma tries to be a link between disparate groups and do her best to help people, but the friction this sometimes causes makes her question “do we end up helping at all, or just make things worse – for others and ourselves?” The novel soberly acknowledges the insurmountable challenges for an individual when trying to solve the world's problems, but that there are small contributions that can be made to help individuals. It's a resonant and heartfelt novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatalie Hart
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When reading novels about WWII you are usually shown the perspective of women and men from countries involved in fighting the conflict. However, I haven’t come across many representations of countries that maintained neutrality. So I’ve found it fascinating reading two recent novels which do this: Rose Tremain’s novel “The Gustav Sonata” which portrays the long term consequences for a Swiss officer and his family drawn into a serious moral conflict and Dermot Bolger’s new novel “The Lonely Sea and Sky” which is based on a historical incident where a small Irish ship chose to save 168 shipwrecked German sailors in 1943. The question of whether to save these men from drowning is more difficult than it first appears: some German forces sank Irish vessels (frequently as target practice) despite their nation's neutrality and there was also the risk that the Germans might take control of the Irish ship once they had boarded and outnumbered the seamen. Their country might have been neutral, but they lived in a world at war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of a 14 year old Irish boy named Jack who joins the crew of a shipping vessel called the Kerlogue. He needs to mature quickly for a hard life at sea and he's confronted with many moral dilemmas posed in this dramatic journey. Bolger creates a personal, heartrending and atmospheric tale of the lives of these Irish sailors during a period of great international conflict.

Jack recently lost his father who was also a sailor; he never returned from his last ill-fated expedition. It’s left his mother and multiple siblings on the brink of starvation. Even though he is technically underage, he finagles his way into joining this shipping vessel’s crew. Jack’s discovery process along his first voyage at sea has many layers. The difficulty of sailing is vividly created as Jack becomes accustomed to seasickness, hard duties and navigating the social structure of a tightly compressed group of men. There is a hierarchy of rank which must be respected and sailors must tread carefully to not enquire too much about any sailor’s problems – such as a particularly troubled man named Mr Walton. Rather than neglecting each other’s emotional wellbeing this is seen as a sign of respect. Since some of the crew sailed with his father, it’s touching how Jack discovers parts of what was his father’s daily life and character which were previously unknown to him.

Jack is also introduced to foreign cultures and attitudes in the Welsh and Portuguese ports where they stop for cargo or customs inspections. He’s led a very sheltered existence up until this point in his small Irish town of Wexford which was “dominated not by fear of an all-seeing God but by a terror that neighbours might think you lacked respectability.” Out in the world he’s free to make his own choices away from the prying eyes of familiars. He has a particularly striking encounter in Lisbon with a Czechoslovakian Jewish woman named Katerina who has eluded capture and has improvised a difficult new life for herself. Bolger writes with great sensitivity and detail about Katerina’s complex psychology and the conflict and hardship she faces. Her presence in Jack's mind also gives Jack more complex opinions when faced with the moral challenges ahead.

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

"The Fastnet Lighthouse, though crews on cargo ships call it the Lonely Rock... This is the last bit of Ireland emigrants glimpse when they're America bound."

The novel shows that rather than existing wholly outside the conflict, “neutral” nations were forced to make compromises or concede in certain respects to German or Allied forces. The cook who Jack works for on the ship remarks at one point “Ireland is the only neutral country gaining nothing from this war,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese happily trade with the British and, at the same time, they flog tungsten to the Nazis to armour-plate their tanks. The Swedes supply the Germans with iron ore and Swiss banks can barely close their vaults, they’re so crammed with looted Nazi gold.” Although these other nations clearly suffered hardships and strains during the war which was detrimental to their economies and people, it's interesting to think about the precarious position of neutrality and how some people might have used the war to their benefit. It's also interesting to learn how the IRA briefly considered siding with Hitler's Germany in the hopes of creating a re-united Irish nation with the north.

More than any political arguments or issues of allegiance, what comes through in the novel is the sailors' essential humanity. They see themselves in a kind of brotherhood with any man who sails at sea because the living is so difficult and fraught with danger. Faced with drowning men, they couldn't allow sailors to perish whether they were soldiers that posed a threat to them or not. The consequences of rescuing them may have impacted the crew of the Kerlogue negatively: it ostracised them from the British as their priority was getting them to the nearest port in Ireland for medical attention and from the Germans for not returning their men. It also led the crew to losing their cargo and any profit they'd make from their long journey – something they could ill afford to do while living on the brink of poverty. However, their action has assured these brave sailors a heroic place in history as having done the right thing in an extremely difficult time. Dermot Bolger has done them justice in producing such a finely crafted and extremely readable tale which brings their story to life.

I must admit that I was sent a copy of this novel a year ago, but it’s remained sitting patiently on my shelf begging to be picked up. I’ve never read Kate Atkinson before although I know how well-regarded she is so I was eager to read “A God in Ruins”. However, I was aware that it’s a kind-of sequel or companion novel to her previous book “Life After Life”. The geek in me likes to read things in order and I wanted to clear some time to get to the first before reading this second book. Taking on the challenge of reading the entire Baileys Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement has meant I don’t have this luxury. Simon of SavidgeReads and others have assured me it’s not necessary and that it even might be preferable to read them in reverse order. So I plunged in and was completely swept away by the strength of Atkinson’s writing. This is undoubtedly masterful storytelling and it is a tremendously powerful book.

The novel focuses primarily on the life of Teddy, a WWII bomber pilot. The story stretches from his early days living amongst many siblings at his family home Fox Corner to his late life as a grandfather. But the book doesn’t follow a linear line. Instead, it moves in scenes backwards and forwards in time drawing fascinating connections across decades. In early scenes details about the ultimate fate of a particular central character might be mentioned in a sentence’s subclause. This is similar to the way Virginia Woolf delivers news of Mrs Ramsay’s demise in “To the Lighthouse”. It can seem in someway shocking and cruel, but gives a powerful sense of the flow of time. Rather than spoiling the plot, it strongly adds to how you read a scene so you remain mindful of the way a life plays out even in the middle of that scene’s action. This works particularly well when reading about the various crews during scenes of wartime air fights. Knowing how some will perish or grow to an old age makes their individual characters come more vibrantly alive and the action feel very moving. It’s not easy to write good fast-paced action sequences like plane crashes because reading is so much slower than watching a film. But Atkinson handles this action admirably well!

I do love it when a novel’s title takes on added poignancy as the story goes on. Atkinson uses metaphors for how the fights between aircrafts in the war make them like gods in battle. Much later, Teddy’s grandson finds during his religious practices that each individual is like a god. Although Teddy survives to an old age (we know this from the beginning) he can’t stop the demise of his own body, the fates of those he loves or the troubles his daughter and her children encounter later on. The layering of time in this novel makes poignant statements about the meaning and long-lasting impact of war. Its remarked how “As you got older and time went on, you realized that the distinction between truth and fiction didn’t really matter because eventually everything disappeared into the soupy amnesiac mess of history. Personal or political, it made no difference.” Truth changes its meaning when it transforms into the anecdotes and stories Teddy tells his grandchildren. He frequently feels conflicted and guilty over the fact that some of the bombing was over civilian populations. Atkinson shows through this the complexity, cruelty and long-term effects of war.

Something I felt conflicted about when reading this novel was the way Atkinson handles Teddy’s daughter Viola and her first husband Dominic. In their early adulthood they are hippies, wildly rebelling against their parents’ conservative lifestyles and live on a commune in the 70s. They are relentlessly selfish, hypocritical, vile and dangerously reckless. While I have no doubt there are people like this, the way in which Atkinson constructs this presentation of a counterculture lifestyle in relation to the pastoral ideals of Teddy’s later lifestyle of subsisting in the English countryside made me uncomfortable. It felt in a way like Atkinson was saying the societal movement which rebelled against the proceeding generation who fought in the war were merely ungrateful rather than having anything useful to say. It partly seemed to me like a case where the author is using the characters of Viola and Dominic as ciphers for her feelings rather than granting them dignity as individuals. Atkinson states in an afterward that her respect for the people who fought in WWII motivated her to write this book.

Viola’s character does take on more complexity later in the novel, yet she is a target of continuous ridicule. Atkinson has more fun with her when Viola eventually becomes a writer. Viola treats her aging father with frequent disregard or only wants to suck value from him like a vampire: “She might have been able to use his memories as the basis of a novel. One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously.” This is quite a playful comment about what Atkinson is doing herself. If it feels like Viola isn’t treated with much compassion, the fact she becomes a writer makes me wonder if it might be her that Atkinson paradoxically identifies with the most. Viola’s children and the soldiers who fight are treated with much more reverence. That’s not to say a character like Teddy is presented as a faultless individual. His tragic misconstruing of his wife’s actions at one point is a particularly poignant example of his limitations.

The novel skilfully presents how the fates of very young soldiers who fought in the war were so precarious. Despite heroic acts, it often seems merely accidental whether someone survived or not during the heat of battle. There are also terrifying moments of epiphany for Teddy when in the midst of battle he sees that they are very small elements of greater societal shifts: “It was then that Teddy realised that they were not so much warriors as sacrifices for the greater good. Birds thrown against a wall, in the hope that eventually, if there were enough birds, they would break that wall.” Because the survival or demise of individuals hang upon mere chance, it’s as if Atkinson spins the roulette wheel of history in her story so that outcomes exist in a nexus of infinite possibilities. She states that “The whole edifice of civilization turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” But that doesn’t make this particular story that she imagines for Teddy any less meaningful.

I am really eager to go back and read “Life After Life” now. Coming to this novel late, I’ve been able to see how it’s been received. Some Atkinson fans feel it’s her best where others still believe earlier books to be better. It was surprising for me to learn that “Life After Life” is focused primarily on Ursula who is Teddy’s sister. She didn’t stand out very prominently in “A God in Ruin” so I wonder if Atkinson assumed her readers would have more knowledge about her than we do or if she was happy to let her fade more into the background. I’m guessing that reading the first novel will only motivate me more to want to come back and read this latest one.

It seems to me that when writers create companion novels that involve the same characters the fictional world they’ve formed feels more complete because they’ve already meditated upon and imagined the characters’ lives and histories so well. This was certainly the case in Rachel Joyce’s “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy” which is a companion to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” and it was also the case in Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila” which is a companion to “Gilead” and “Home”. I loved these later novels and I felt they were much stronger than the earlier books. I know other people who feel differently. Whatever the case, Kate Atkinson has certainly created a fully realized universe and shows she possesses inimitable powers as a storyteller. “A God in Ruins” is a heartbreaking, profound and riveting read of great complexity and skill.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKate Atkinson
5 CommentsPost a comment

What happens to people’s sense of national identity when their country is occupied during war? Estonia has a particularly complex history having been a part of surrounding nations or occupied by its warring neighbours for centuries. In the aftermath of WWI, the country fought a battle of independence for two years and finally achieved sovereignty. But with the onset of WWII the country was again seized to be used as a pawn - first by the Soviets and then occupied by the Germans in 1941. This is where the novel “When the Doves Disappeared” begins. The characters are suspended in a state of agonizing tension as no one knows what the outcome of the war will be or where their loyalties should lay. It primarily follows the stories of Roland, his cousin Edgar and Edgar’s wife Juudit. Each character makes different choices and transforms themselves to survive the subsequent crucial few years. During this time the Estonians discover that the German “liberators” are another occupier intent on using their resources and instigating their pogroms upon their Jewish and gypsy populations as well as others. The novel flips back and forth between these years and the 60s when the Soviets have re-occupied the country establishing networks of informants who watch the population and report to the government any dissenters. This complex powerful novel shows the degrees to which people radically transform their identities and how close relationships are destroyed under pressure from the overwhelming onslaught of war.

The novel begins at the grave of Roland’s wife Rosalie. She was mysteriously killed and Roland is determined to discover what happened. Only at the novel’s end do we find out why she was silenced. In the meantime, Roland fights with the resistance while Edgar’s loyalties change with the times. He renames himself while desperately trying to endear himself with the Germans and report to them about the political loyalty or dissent of members of the Estonian public. When the Soviets take the country over again he gives himself yet another name and continues his spying as well as writing outlandish propaganda against enemies of communism. His estranged wife Juudit in a way comes to represent Estonia itself. Rejected by her husband for reasons she never understands, she is at first recruited by the Estonian resistance but becomes a German officer’s lover. When circumstances tear them apart she’s left as a husk living out her days back with her husband Edgar who neglects her and treats her as an invalid. These characters’ intricate tales are played out over a number of years in a way which shows how people’s integrity can be worn down over time while living under oppressive governments.

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

Museum of the Occupation in Tallinn

It can be confusing and disorientating at first trying to follow characters and the narrative as this novel switches through time and place – especially as some people’s names change over time! However, about halfway through it all fell into place for me and I felt the building suspense of Sofi Oksanen’s heartrending labyrinthine tale. This novel makes you feel the persistent tension people feel when living in perpetual state of fear. There is also the horrific silence which builds when people die or disappear as people are worn down and don’t speak because “Maybe life was so fragile and meaningless that there was no need to add to their troubles.” Beyond physical damage and death, Oksanen captures the way in which people are defeated in their minds. For those who try to be savvy in order to survive by transforming themselves, she shows how they lose an essential part of their being. This is demonstrated particularly in a homosexual character who denies his sexuality and loses himself entirely in his attempts to assimilate to changing ideologies.

One of the most impressive things about “When the Doves Disappeared” is the complex way Oksanen represents time. She observes at one point that “Everyone had his breaking point, and if nothing else destroyed the mind, time would.” Following the entangled stories of the characters in this novel you learn the way war can ultimately tear people’s sense of themselves apart. This is a cleverly constructed novel filled with many poignant and haunting moments. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSofi Oksanen

It may feel sometimes like WWII is a subject that has been so well documented and fictionalized we don’t want to hear about it anymore. However, in the last year I’ve read some gripping novels that give a surprisingly different perspective on the war by focusing on the struggles of individuals on the periphery. Some of these include Lissa Evan’s “Crooked Heart” about con-artists on the home front, Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” about the plight of German citizens in post-war occupied Berlin and Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” about a wartime marriage of convenience which turns into a harrowing tale of loss. Jason Hewitt takes an even more radically new view of the war showing the days leading up to its end and the immediate aftermath. However, “Devastation Road” doesn’t simply recount the complicated historical details of this significant time. Instead we travel on a journey down an anonymous road that has been ravaged by the war. Owen wakes to find himself bedraggled and disorientated near a river that is awash with bodies and without any clear recollection of the past five years. During his travels through a devastated Eastern Europe he slowly regains an understanding of who he is and what led him to this critical moment. His odyssey illuminates the way war is above-all made up of individual struggle and the terrible choices people must make to survive.

The trauma of war and a head injury have caused Owen to lose his short-term memory. At first this is a real struggle and he must write down what’s happening in order to remind himself what he experiences day by day and the fragmented memories which flash through his mind. He soon encounters a passionate Czech refugee named Janek who doesn’t speak English and a mysterious Polish woman named Irena who desperately wants to get rid of her baby. They accompany him on his journey trying to find people they have lost. Owen’s experiences and the way his life story gradually slots together cause him to entirely re-evaluate his identity. At one point Owen realises that “He was beginning to feel like a fugitive; or as if he had two lives running in parallel – the one he remembered and the one here and now.” This shows how our sense of self can become very thin and flexible, especially when challenged by something as traumatic as war. It causes people to both completely lose themselves or reinvent themselves as a necessary method of endurance.

Owen is a draughtsman helping to design planes for the war.

Owen is a draughtsman helping to design planes for the war.

The story becomes both a thrilling and horrifying adventure as the truth is gradually revealed about the protagonists and the plight of people in the aftermath of war. With so many people displaced and communities’ infrastructure so broken, Owen wanders through a land of virtual chaos. We see how the war’s ending didn’t simply mean peace. The repercussions of the damage and continuing struggles of looting, fighting and rape persisted. A welfare officer remarks that “The war might as well still be raging for all the good the peace is doing us.” The way forward is uncertain. It’s compelling seeing how Hewitt’s characters adjust to this new environment by either triumphing or breaking down. Betrayal is a consistent theme in this novel where lovers, family and country are deceived out of necessity. The author explores the consequences of this in ways which are subtle and surprising. In particular, I found Irena’s character be extremely compelling as she is someone who felt thinly-drawn at first but her complicated story proves to be one of the most heart breaking.

It feels as if Jason Hewitt has taken the concept of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” and placed it in a historically specific time and place. Only through encounters and glimpses of the ravaged landscape do we piece together what has happened. While the physical and emotional damage of the war is real and painfully-felt, what’s in some ways equally disturbing is the way people’s sense of humanity has been so violently shaken. There are beautiful small acts of good will and terrifying scenes of vicious cruelty. “Devastation Road” takes you on a journey where you experience the extremes of war; you ultimately arrive somewhere that makes you very grateful for the gracious comfort of home.

Here is an article written by the author about displaced person's after WWII and the formation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency which feature in this novel: http://www.historiamag.com/?page_id=1494

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJason Hewitt
2 CommentsPost a comment

Ana is an adolescent girl growing up in the city of Zagreb during a time of tumultuous change. One day the distinction between being Serbian and Croatian makes a big difference although “In school we’d been taught to ignore distinguishing ethnic factors, though it was easy enough to discern someone’s ancestry by their last name.” Narrating the story in her own voice she witnesses a growing edginess as neighbours start to turn on neighbours and friends upon friends. She hears the opinions about certain ethnicities and political allegiances when she goes to shops or school or watches television. For Ana and her close friend Luka, such distinctions are perplexing and absurd however the effects become immediately apparent when food/supply shortages occur and the air raids begin. She will only know in retrospect that she lived through the Croatian War of Independence.

Perhaps Ana would have lived through the war without feeling its effects so intensely if her parents were able to remain in Zagreb. As children do, Ana and her friends adjust to living in a time of war. They play fight amidst the signs of war and shelters which spring up all over the city. Of course war is made into a game by children who experience it because otherwise they would feel nothing but terrified the entire time. Although she adapts she is conscious this isn’t a standard childhood: “I thought of our war games and generator bike fights and wondered if the things I’d come to consider ordinary were not so normal after all.” She is aware that real danger exists, but she convinces herself it’s something she won’t experience: “I allowed myself into the fantasy I recognized as such even while my mind was still spinning it – that there in the flat, with my family, I was safe.” But Ana’s baby sister Rahela is seriously ill with a kidney problem. The limited medical resources left in Croatia can’t help her so the family must take her further afield and over borders where they run into trouble. Ana is forced into an entirely different kind of life which leaves her damaged and struggling to understand who she is now. After eventually becoming settled in America, Ana travels back to her native country to be able to consciously cope with her past and form a stronger sense of identity.

One of the most touching things in this moving and powerful novel are the ways in which language and literature play an essential part in Ana’s connection with her past. She reads books about war and the history of her country by writers such as W.G. Sebald and Rebecca West especially because “Reading was one of the only ways in which I allowed myself to think about the continent and country I’d left behind.” Dealing with her own experiences and past was too direct, but books give her a framework within which she can better understand how her own sense of national identity connects to the history of her people and individuals who have survived war. She learns that language itself is an essential part of that identity. She observes: “I used to think all languages were ciphers, that once you learned another’s alphabet you could convert foreign words back into your own, something recognizable. But the blood formed a pattern like a map to comprehension and I understood the differences all at once. I understood how one family could end up in the ground and another could be allowed to continue on its way, that the distinction between Serbs and Croats was much vaster than ways of writing letters.”

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    Cedevita is a sugary lemon Croatian vitamin drink distributed to children during the war as a public health initiative at first before becoming a popular soft drink in itself.

Cedevita is a sugary lemon Croatian vitamin drink distributed to children during the war as a public health initiative at first before becoming a popular soft drink in itself.

Partway through this novel I grew worried that it might be a book where the author is using a young female victim as a means of exploring a bleak difficult war history that most people don’t want to approach in raw facts. In other words, I thought it might be a case where the story is there to serve the author’s intention rather than the author being there to honour the story. But “Girl at War” proves itself to be a robust, complex novel which thoroughly immerses you in Ana’s journey. I grew to empathize and care for her struggle not just because of the circumstances she lived through, but the inner-conflicts she strives to overcome. Something which is revelatory and startling about this novel is the way in which Ana herself is not just a victim. Amidst her struggles in the war-torn countryside of Croatia she becomes a soldier. The stark reality of this is emphasized in how her experience isn’t symbolic: “When I thought of my own weapon I remembered not its existential power but its weight, heavy against my slight frame.” Such a visceral understanding of war continues throughout the book; the grander question of meaning only comes with her thoughtful reflections when she revisits her past.

The Yugoslavian civil war is a difficult subject to approach in fiction because it took place in parts and lasted for such a long time. “Girl at War” gives you a heartfelt, cleverly-written portrayal of one girl’s experience which shows that although there are horrendous, unquestionable crimes which occur in a layered, complex war such as this “in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.” When it comes to the personal level survival is the imperative rather than allegiance or morality. Only in the aftermath of her experiences can Ana begin to make sense of what living through war has meant to her own notions of self. It’s a novel which transcends its circumstances to tell a story that has universal meaning. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Nović
2 CommentsPost a comment

Sometimes it seems like so such WWII fiction has been published that even stories set during the London Blitz all start to feel too familiar. Then a story comes along like Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans and I see things from an entirely new perspective. True, this is another tale about a London boy sent to live in the safety of the countryside, but the characters are unlike any others I’ve read about. Noel is a quiet and precocious child who is living with his feisty former-Suffragette godmother Mattie in London until she begins suffering severely from the onset of dementia. With only the most tangential relations left to care for him, he sets out for a rural town where he is paraded through the streets with other children by a billeting officer until he’s spotted by a woman named Vee. She takes him into her home, not for the good of the cause, but for the ten and sixpence a week she’ll get for housing him. Vee has many responsibilities caring for her partially-invalid mother, who spends her days writing amusingly earnest letters to Churchill and son in his young adulthood, who escaped the draft due to a heart condition. At first she is perplexed by Noel’s oddities, remarking “he was like one of those fancy knots, all loops, no ends.” But gradually she comes to respect his intelligence and emotionally-guarded manner. Vee and Noel make a curious pair who form an unscrupulous alliance that leads them on an emotional journey.

The author also has a refreshing way of conjuring the time period through evocative sensory experiences. I particularly appreciate how Evans creates particularly strong feelings for the besieged city through the sense of taste. With descriptions of unseasoned boiled potatoes being consumed in an air raid shelter or a handful of London water which tastes of pennies or the red grit of brick dust which crusts a character’s tongue, the reader is drawn into the civilian experience of war-time. So when a line as short and abrupt as “This fog had been a house” comes, it’s made to feel all the more tragic because the imagined sensations of those flavours are still on your tongue. It makes the devastation feel immediately real. My only criticism of the writing style is that in certain scenes set in public spaces the arrangement of characters becomes somewhat disorientating so it’s difficult to follow the action that’s happening. However, the novel overall moves in well arranged segments that build tension and draw you into the dramatic experiences of the protagonists.

What’s particularly successful is the different slant Evans takes on the attitudes of her characters in this time period. Whether its homes left unattended because of bomb scares, citizens too eager to donate money for good causes or young men desperate to avoid being taken into the armed forces, the war unintentionally opened up opportunities for people with morally-dubious sensibilities to take advantage and profit. What’s more is that there is a sense from the response by the police and authorities in the novel that they are so overwhelmed by the dramatic societal shift caused from the war that they don’t have the time or resources to deal with non-life-threatening incidents of crime. Far from alienating them from the reader, the sometimes selfish attitudes of the characters portrayed makes them more human and relatable. It’s very different from the purely virtuous or outrageously hateful WWII characters that you find in many war novels. The characters in Crooked Heart are endearingly flawed with emotionally-damaged pasts which impinge upon their judgement and actions.

The way in which the central characters come to rely and care for each other seems particularly relevant for this time period. Although neither Noel nor Vee’s families are affected by the current war they are left isolated like many people during this time when society was being shaken down by the strain of conflict and restrictions of rationing. Driven out of their normal circumscribed existence, chance encounters brought people together out of necessity. While Noel and Vee form a relationship at first out of need they soon discover a kinship which redefines the traditional meaning of family. Crooked Heart delves into the private lives of people living through the horrors of war showing you a refreshingly different perspective. At one point it’s remarked that “There were bombs outside, but inside was worse.” This novel confronts people who aren’t invested with the cause of the war so much as their own personal survival and overcoming private difficulties. It’s exciting reading how Evans incorporates elements of the Blitz to draw their priorities into focus.

This review of Crooked Heart also appeared on Shiny New Books

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans

“If words and prayers had no effect, then it was time to use the body.”

On the fictional island of Sans Amen in the Caribbean there is a small commune of men organized by a charismatic leader who are fed up with the current government. They believe the democratically elected prime minister is corrupt and they are ready to take action. Armed with smuggled weaponry, they split into groups to raid the imposing House which is the seat of government and also the local television station. A bookish, thoughtful man named Ashes is among them for complicated personal reasons. With head-spinning intensity, we follow him as the approximately one hundred men (many of whom are boys under eighteen) sneak up to the House with guns and storm inside shooting guards and civilians as they go. The prime minister and heads of state are seized. “House of Ashes” depicts a coup d'état. It's terrifying. With it's complicated and harrowing history of colonialism, this is something which has occurred frequently to governments in the Caribbean. On the island of Haiti alone the government has been overthrown in this way twenty-five times since 1806. This history of frequent violent upheaval is summarized by a character at one point in the novel: “‘Is like we Caribbean people mess up real good every time we try this thing called revolution… Is like it too simple. Or like it too good to be true. Every time the liberators become oppressors.’” When people are oppressed, feel powerless and think that there can be no more debate things get violent.

I first read Monique Roffey's novel “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle” years ago and was struck by the delicate way she interlaces the personal with the political in her storytelling. In this new novel she expertly does the same, but focuses on one big violent political event and the consequences of such calamitous action. Many of the boys involved come from impoverished backgrounds and are easily swayed by the didactic teachings of the commune's Leader. They are banded together through desperation more than natural kinship which has created a tight and particular kind of camaraderie: “They weren’t friends; they weren’t associates or colleagues either; they were brothers.” The novel focuses particularly on one boy nicknamed Breeze who has street smarts but doesn't understand what a prime minister is. The story switches perspectives between Ashes who storms the government without even knowing how to load a gun and Aspartame Garland, a female minister for environmental affairs. Over a period of six days the insurgents inhabit the House surrounded by the stalwart army outside.

Roffey balances her story showing with equal validity the perspectives of a variety of people involved from the strong-willed prime minister to a passionate and experienced military revolutionary named Greg Mason who believes “Money is power; corporations are the new colonisers.” Having left his wife and children behind to join in the insurgency, Ashes has deep dilemmas about the meaning of this action. Through this extreme event people's true nature's emerge with all their complicated pasts and core beliefs: “In this madhouse everyone was showing himself or herself.” One character who shows tremendous spirit and arrives in the narrative like a rocket is a cleaning lady named Mrs Gonzales. She demonstrates a memorable tenacity and acts as a voice of a common person who works hard and isn't deluded by grandiose visions of utopian ideology.

The leatherback sea turtle which returns to Sans Amen to lay its eggs takes on a symbolic value in the novel

The leatherback sea turtle which returns to Sans Amen to lay its eggs takes on a symbolic value in the novel

Although the stories of the characters involved are engagingly particular and personal, Roffey is skilful in incorporating the larger political and historical issues which have built up to this hostile takeover. “When the colonisers left, a popular people’s government were voted in and for almost thirty years they had simply replicated the mistakes and greed of the British. It was as if they had caught something, like a flu or a cold, except the thing they caught was corruption.” The oppressive rule of colonisers has created a legacy of distrust and greed. Above the great government House created under Queen Victoria's reign hangs a great dragon. Ashes hilariously remarks: “The Queen and the dragon were some kind of team.” The individuals involved in this violent uprising and the government officials who are captured are all motivated by particular systems of thought and inherited ideas which influence their actions. There is the striking observation that “Politics was about darkness, about reaction, about… ego. It had something to do with a blindness rather than seeing.” A successful politician might triumph more from what they tactically don't know than what they do. There is also the insidious suggestion that darker/sinister motives from particular people have influenced this revolution. Roffey shows the full complexity of such a dramatic societal change.

“House of Ashes” portrays in vivid detail and with heart-racing intensity the bloody consequences of what a coup d'état must feel like. There is sheer physical strain of enduring depravation and terror for multiple days. Emotions run high as the body is run down. I was totally gripped and nervous to know what the outcome would be. The novel builds to a climactic conclusion for the revolution and the plays out further towards a surprising ending that will make you want to quickly read on till the last page. This is a book that makes an impact upon you subconsciously so that it's cumulative meaning is only felt when you've put it down.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey

How do ordinary people survive in their native city after losing a war? The familiar civilization they've known all their lives has crumbled and must slowly be rebuilt brick by brick. People either give into despair or use their ingenuity to adapt and survive. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin was jointly occupied by the Allied powers. American, British, French and Soviet forces patrol the city. Food is scarce, many buildings are partially-demolished and a thriving black market arises where cigarettes take the place of currency. Kasper Meier is a man in his early 50s. His age is somewhat immaterial as the effects of war have prematurely aged everyone: “In Berlin, a face full of lines carved out by dirt, fear and exhaustion didn’t tell you anything about someone’s age anymore.” Kasper has learned to navigate this devastated city landscape by bartering to obtain tins of ham or whatever foodstuff he can obtain in order to feed himself and his elderly father. He tries to keep a low profile and he has a good reason for doing so because he’s gay. Homosexuality was still criminalized after the fall of the Nazis and even those who were “gay Holocaust” survivors faced being re-imprisoned if they continued to engage in homosexual activity and their names were kept on a list of sex offenders. But Kasper has obtained a reputation for being well-connected and able to obtain information. This is when he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Eva who needs his help to find a British pilot. From this encounter Kasper is unwittingly drawn into a complex and suspenseful plot of revenge and murder.

1945 Berlin is a city rife with suspicion and paranoia. It’s haunted by the devastating consequences that war has brought to it and the people left behind (both German citizens and soldiers in the Allied forces) painfully mourn the loss of their loved ones and the life they led before. The end of winter doesn’t bring with it the hope of renewal. Rather it’s a city where “the warmth of spring had begun, in places, to bring back the smell of buried death that had plagued the city the previous summer – a sweet rotten fragrance carried on the searching gusts of April wind.” This season which traditionally brings with it the promise of new birth instead awakens the spectre of all that was lost. A group of skilfully written characters are plagued by difficult painful memories and the bleak reality of a ruined city. The most powerful character is Kasper himself who forges ahead despite images of his lost lover Phillip reverberating in his mind. He shies from talking about the past or the reason why he was scarred during the war (losing one of his eyes). Whenever he is asked about his eye he deflects the question by producing a comic answer such as: “Hindenburg did it with his Pickelhaube when I pulled his moustache.” He carefully continues to hide his sexuality from his elderly father and fears being exposed if he doesn’t assist Eva and her enigmatic employer. As the story progresses, Eva’s tale takes on a greater degree of complexity and the full terror of her difficult past comes out in a highly dramatic scene. Here “her hatred overwhelmed her and she let it come and she enjoyed it like biting down on an aching tooth.” The intensity with which this scene is composed is made all the more powerful from the outflow of bitter feelings which have been carefully concealed by her character for so long.

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“As the sky darkened, the rough castellations at the tops of the buildings became silhouettes and, if the destruction below them wasn’t so total, they might have appeared like melancholy ruins in the haze of a Casper David Friedrich painting.”

Before the war, Kaspar used to run a bar which from small descriptions I gather was a sort of low-key version of Christopher Isherwood’s famous cabaret portrayed in “Goodbye to Berlin.” The story in this novel follows a similarly colourful cast of characters who have been trodden down, but still retain their flair. It’s interesting coming to this novel after having read Audrey Magee’s novel “The Undertaking” earlier this year. Before reading either of these books I can’t remember having encountered any stories of post-war German life (Magee’s book partly follows a woman’s story throughout the war and after). Something both novels deal with is the rape of women in the city following the occupation from Allied forces. In his novel, Fergusson explores how rape isn’t a side-effect of war, but an active instrument used in the systematic way a nation is defeated. But for all the misery, betrayal and horror that comes with war, “The Spring of Kasper Meier” shows the surprising resilience of individuals as well as their ability to believe in the good of humanity and rely on each other for support after achieving a hard-won trust. Ben Fergusson has produced a really impressive debut novel that deserves to be read.

“Eleven Days” has been sitting on my ‘to be read’ pile for about six months. The subject matter of a contemporary American military man made me slightly wary of approaching it; I wasn’t sure I would really enjoy it. However, I found the book difficult to put down once I started getting into the story of a single mother named Sara whose son Jason is a member of a special operations team and has gone missing during a mission. The location of where he went missing is classified and she has no idea what might have happened to him. She’s suspended in time. The novel follows a period of eleven days until the point she finally discovers what’s become of him. In between we’re given the back story of Sara’s relationship with an elusive man who works for the CIA and who fathered her son. The author describes Jason’s development and his choice to join the military after 9/11. With exquisite detail and thoughtful insight she details his training in preparation for important missions which demand highly refined skills. The stark realism of Carpenter’s subject coupled with her characters’ deeply profound meditations on the nature of war lead to poetic insight and a deeply engaging story.

It’s impressive how intricately the author details the strenuous training Jason goes through. Alongside the arduous physical demands, the soldier’s most profound development is psychological. Here Carpenter meditates on different levels required in training to deal with battle over time: “Pain management allows you to move through the moment; expectations management allows you to move through the day; and anger management allows you to move through being denied not only any privacy but any acknowledgement of being you.” The way civilians manage their state of being day to day totally shifts when those people are indoctrinated into military service. Personal ego is necessarily set aside because the operation is what takes precedence.

Does this mean that to be in the military necessitates turning oneself into a thoughtless tool to be wielded by some strategic general? What this novel showed me is that there is a strange alchemy which occurs when a highly intelligent individual willingly engages in a cause which is much larger than him. “Somewhere he had developed a deep belief that a man was someone who acted, not someone who spoke, and that honor was about discretion and progress.” Jason’s faith in the values of serving his country doesn’t mean blindly following. He’s shown to be a highly intelligent and incredibly well-read person. Turning into a soldier doesn’t annihilate his personality, but adds to his character since it makes him an active part of civilization’s movement forward. To engage in service without questioning whether your personal sacrifice might be for a flawed cause is anathema to most people. It’s acknowledged: “They are aware that what they do and the choice to do it will never make sense to most people.”

U.S. Navy Special Warfare Trident insignia worn by Navy SEALS.

U.S. Navy Special Warfare Trident insignia worn by Navy SEALS.

This novel captures how the meaning of battle has changed in the past several years from what it meant before the rising fear of terrorism. There are no longer any clear time lines for war or a sense of it being declared or ending. “The definition of success in wartime as Jason’s generation knew it was the prevention of future bloodshed, the corralling of ‘terror.’” Our society has increasingly become preoccupied with potential threats and reliable intelligence about the possibility of terror because of the understandable sense that attacks can spring up at anytime and anywhere. It’s interesting how this novel explores the creeping predominance of unspecified borders of military engagement because there are no longer any specifically demarcated battlefields.  

The emotional heart of the story is, of course, the relationship between Sara and her son Jason. What this novel beautifully shows is the way love is honed and safeguarded in a relationship that is stretched by the kind of unknowningness and time-sensitive nature of military service. The connection between them is beautifully evoked in small personal interactions that signal carefully marshalled emotion. When separated from her child, Sara’s ability to quietly endure is a testament to her faith and love for her son. At one point it is described that for a sniper “Stillness, it turns out, is an athletic experience.” The same could be said for the training and emotional control needed by a mother whose child is actively serving. “Eleven Days” is an excellently crafted intelligent novel which incorporates an impressive understanding of the mechanics and psychological processes of the military.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLea Carpenter

There’s an old cliché that relationships formed in times of emergency are tighter and more intense than those that come together in more natural circumstances. At least, they are at first. Audrey Magee’s debut novel “The Undertaking” begins with the marriage of German soldier Peter Faber and Katharina Spinell during WWII, but the couple aren’t physically together in the same place. In fact, they’ve never even met. Their marriage was negotiated through an agency for cold practical reasons. Peter wants leave from the battlefront to return to Germany. Encouraged by the parents she lives with, Katharina wants to receive a pension if Peter should die in combat. The two finally get to meet and, after some initial awkwardness, form an intense close bond. This hastily arranged relationship gives each of them something to hope for throughout the terrible war that ensues and it is incredibly brutal. At first the German forces and ordinary citizens smugly believe that their victory will continue and their empire will expand into the Russian territory they invade. The story follows the long bitter loss of this dream and cleverly portrays how the characters’ ideologies gradually shift with its withering.

The really striking feature of Magee’s strong writing is how incredibly spare it is. The novel is largely composed of dialogue. The conversations between characters are sharply distilled so that they evoke not only exactly what the characters are thinking, but the political ideologies behind what they are saying and the emotions thickly surrounding those words. The descriptions of location or events between these sections of dialogue are very sparse, simple and declarative because that’s all they need to be. It’s in the rich meaningful speech of the characters that the physical environment and entire culture at that time in history is evoked. This is a very clever writer’s trick and devastatingly effective for the subject of war. No poetics, interior contemplation or elaborate metaphors are necessary. The hard brutal facts and carefully chosen words spoken by the characters form a deeply felt, layered understanding of the personal dilemmas involved in life during battle.

At times I was on the brink of tears reading certain scenes in this novel because they are so blunt. A few terse lines in some scenes hit like a hammer. Characters celebrating moving into a richly decorated, spacious new apartment or the acquisition of a sparkling expensive jewelled necklace become something horrific because the reader knows that these have just been forcefully taken from Jewish people who have been rounded up by the Nazis. A temporary shelter with still smouldering fire and meagre meal for battered German soldiers in a tiny Russian village becomes revolting because the reader knows the helpless Russian civilians who just recently inhabited it have been forced out into the snow to freeze. These acquisitions taken by the characters seemingly without guilt don’t need any justification because it’s wartime. Normal moral impulses don’t apply. There is an enemy who is dominated and the spoils of war become the possessions of the victor. This steely merciless nature of battle comes through Magee’s story causing the reader to imagine the multitude of personal sufferings that are behind these physical takings. Scenes like this and ones where personal conflict actually occurs in a few short lines left me utterly devastated.

A German soldier being captured in Russia, Dec 1941

A German soldier being captured in Russia, Dec 1941

It’s fascinating how political beliefs and allegiances gradually shift throughout the novel - not because of the suffering the characters witness in others, but because of the gradual wearing down of their own minds, bodies and spirits. This isn’t a rose-tinted view of humanity. Magee shows how people act in a highly pressurized environment where desperation and necessity are the only things which motivate normal individuals. This isn’t a book about extraordinary heroes or viciously-minded villains. It’s about ordinary citizens involved in a war which we as historically-informed readers know they are doomed to lose. By dragging us through the battles both on the home front and fields of conflict, Peter and Katharina’s relationship which holds such a fiery aura throughout the novel is gradually, heart-wrenchingly demystified. I’m not going to say what happens or if the couple find each other, but what’s extraordinary is that the natural compulsion (for most readers, at least) to see a happy reunion is confounded by the way the society’s values shift over these wartime years.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about why Ireland produces so many distinctly strong writers. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of excellent new and established ones. Of course, any discussions like this inevitably fall into generalizations. Usually people cite the highly lyrical quality of Irish writing borne out of a long oral tradition and strong sense of culture. What’s striking about Audrey Magee is her writing doesn’t have any of this but is nevertheless intensely felt and still beautiful. I’m so happy that this book came to attention through its appearance on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction long list as I might not have read it otherwise. It’s a gripping, terrifying and brilliantly conceived novel.

Here is a wonderful interview about Magee’s thought process in composing the novel and her motivation for writing it:

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAudrey Magee
2 CommentsPost a comment

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.

A Sicilian offering soldiers wine during WWII.

A Sicilian offering soldiers wine during WWII.

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/

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAdam Foulds