June 30, 2011

Margaret Drabble: A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Posted in Drabble Margaret, Penguin Modern Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

Why is it that I’ve never read Margaret Drabble before? Probably through some expectation of her as a dull, middlebrow producer of ‘Hampstead novels'; her status as a member of the literary establishment (sister of A.S. Byatt, wife of Michael Holroyd); and frankly, the fact that her name sounds like a cross between drab and drivel. So here I break my duck with her complete short fiction, new from Penguin Modern Classics (ahead of their publication of some of her novels later this year).

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman is subtitled The Collected Stories, which makes it sound rather more epic than it is. It consists of thirteen stories in 220 pages: Drabble’s entire published short fiction output since 1966. (The US edition, subtitled The Complete Stories, includes one, ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, which is not included here.) A collection of stories covering a writer’s entire career – though the most recent story is eleven years old – might be a good introduction to her work, though it does present problems. First, what busy reader can justify taking two weeks over a slim volume like this, which is what would be required to satisfy Mavis Gallant’s injunction that one should read only one story per day? Second, in a collection such as this, where there is an identifiable authorial style in many of the stories, that style may come to seem overfamiliar or tiresome when the stories are read together. Moreover, this might be quite the reverse of the experience for the Drabble fan reading them as they were published over four decades: they may experience comfort and delight in settling back into the author’s familiar voice. Finally, any collected stories like this wickedly invites the reviewer to forge connections or emphasise contrasts to give the review coherence, or to trace a line of development that can only be imposed retrospectively.

Nonetheless there are similarities to some of the stories. All writers revisit the same themes throughout their career – ‘the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn,’ Martin Amis said of Graham Greene. Drabble explores social changes affecting predominantly middle-class characters (they are playwrights, TV presenters, Nobel laureates: she is the female Ian McEwan). What’s most interesting about the way she approaches social change is that her stories both embody and challenge it. In the earliest story here, ‘Hassan’s Tower’ – the book presents them in chronological order – modern marriage is viewed starkly by a honeymooning husband who is already regretting his wedding (“he was no more able to refuse the temptations of pity than he had been able, earlier, to refuse those of an envious admiration”). His wife, a figure of boredom and contempt to him, has no voice in the story, though there is no imbalance of empathy. This in fact is the only story from a man’s point of view – elsewhere, it is the men who are off-stage or recounted in rueful memory: a bully (‘The Merry Widow’), a lech (‘A Success Story’, and the introduction by José Francisco Fernández tells us that this poor example of masculinity was based on Saul Bellow). In ‘The Merry Widow’, the resistance to social norms is even more marked: the central character is “bored” with family life, her children and grandchildren and seeks only to be “divinely, enchantingly, rapturously alone.” (“Writers, most alive when alone:” Amis again.) She decides to go alone on a holiday planned to be taken with her recently dead husband, and finds a new richness through discovery of both the English countryside and the landscape of her own personality.

Drabble’s style remains similar through many of the stories: a subjective third person narrative which comes close to stream of consciousness in its detail and absorption of the characters’ thoughts (at times I was reminded of Mrs Dalloway). This enables her to impart her characters’ histories and impressions together, in a way which can tip from showing to telling, so that the experience is like flying over a landscape rather than walking through it. The narrative style expands a little in second half of book, as though Drabble has begun to experiment. ‘A Success Story’ and the title story have an omniscient narrator – the author, or an author – talking directly to the reader in a playful way (“Perhaps I shouldn’t write [this story], perhaps it’s a bad move to write it”), though they both settle into something very like the directed internal monologue of the early stories. Later, there are a couple of first person narratives, though one of them, ‘Homework’, fell flat for me as it was too obvious an example of a classical unreliable narrator – the sort who thinks they are revealing information about someone else when in fact they are revealing slowly information about themselves. This seems tricksy against Drabble’s usually more straightforward approach, and it is clear that a social realist style is where she remains most comfortable.

Happy liaisons in these stories are a rarity. People fail to connect, or their only connection is a memory; when they do meet it is by accident, or ends unsatisfactorily. In ‘A Voyage to Cythera’, a single woman who loves to travel because she dreams of meeting a lover in every new place she visits (“Oh messages from a foreign country, oh, disquieting glimpses of brightness”), becomes obsessed with the lover of a man she helps on a train. In ‘Faithful Lovers’, former partners in an extra-marital affair encounter one another by chance in an old secret meeting place; though it is not quite by chance. The woman accidentally tells the man that she no longer sleeps with her husband, then is grateful when food arrives to enable the subject to drop. But when it does, she regrets it, and wants to tell him more. Of such astute character insights is great fiction made. The stories are not entirely gloomy, though they do cast a cynical eye in particular on social expectations of women and the masks society imposes. In ‘A Success Story’, a young woman playwright finds herself more pleased by a man’s lechery than any interest he shows in her work (“It’s an awful thing to say, but that’s how some women are,” nods the author to the reader). In ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, there is something like a fairy story tone, including the darkness that we tend to forget about fairy stories, which Drabble brings into an account of a woman losing the will to mask her true self:

And she thought, What has happened to me is that some little mechanism in me has broken. There used to be, till yesterday, a little knob that one twisted until these people came into focus as nice, harmless, well-meaning people. And it’s broken, it won’t twist any more.

Even in the darker stories, we are rewarded with an inkling of optimism toward the end, as an agent of change comes into focus. In ‘Hassan’s Tower’, the husband who “had been afraid for years that he had come to the end of the new and interesting in life,” starts to see his marriage as a beginning rather than an ending. In ‘The Caves of God’, a woman who has never recovered from a relationship ending finds that going back is a possibility, if only for temporary relief. In the later stories, the landscape of England becomes a source of succour.

The stories collected here cover four decades, and it is possible to see the phases of life reflected in them when reading chronologically. Yearning turns to love and settlement; later, children are a subject; finally bereavement, illness and fear of death. Anxiety in the earlier stories turns to calm in the last ones. There is a shift, too, from foreign places, to English cities, to the rural landscape. There need not be any strongly autobiographical element for it to be clear that these are the subjects that preoccupied Drabble as she herself aged. In that sense, what we have here is a document of existence; a life in writing.

June 23, 2011

Blake Butler: There Is No Year

Posted in Butler Blake at 8:00 am by John Self

For those who like the novel to go to new places, I have just the thing for you; provided, that is, you don’t mind the new places looking quite familiar at times. There is much to distrust about Blake Butler: not least his attention-seeking blog title, and some of the contents of that blog which, for all I know, may be intended to sound like Kafka’s aphorisms, but come out more like mistranslated fortune cookies. Yet trustworthy people are interested in him, find this new novel “amazingly good.” It is published in the US by HarperPerennial, hardly a niche press, but has no UK publisher.

There Is No Year declares its credentials – avant-garde? experimental? – from first sight. Its squarish format, textual patterning, variegated pages and photographic inserts all declare, Look, I am trying to do something new. And after all, it is the trying that matters; but all this would be so much window-dressing if the pages contained a conventional story. They do not. This is a work, and a world, of repetition, threat, mystery, frustration and nightmarish illogic.

There is a plot, or at least a premise. A family – father, mother, son – move into a new house. ‘Home’ is not quite the word, as there is not much welcoming about it. The house rejects them from the start. For example, “when the family came to live inside the new house, they’d found another family already there. An exact copy of their family – a copy father, mother, and son. The copy family members stood each in a room alone unblinking.” This is perfectly representative of There Is No Year. The elements which challenge the family also challenge the reader: they look for a moment threatening and ingenious, then for a moment like the unedited flailings of an inchoate imagination. That conflict is key to the book, which challenges the reader in every way, including on the issue of whether this is the real thing or the emperor’s new clothes, on the expectations from a novel and what we expect of writers. Is it true, for example, that Butler wrote it as an experiment as quickly as possible, and what does that mean for our reading of the book? It shakes up expectations of the balance of power – and effort – between writer and reader. What value is the writer’s effort, it asks, and to what extent do we really approach a book independent of any foreknowledge? Read alone, any one of the short chapters seems brilliant, an unexplainable poem. Reading several, you might start to wonder if there is any point, or if this is just random imagery hammered out, however beautifully put. (“The grain in the glass in the windows in the frames in the walls in the rooms in the houses on the yards along the streets aligned for miles.”) Reading on, persisting, a wholeness begins to become apparent.

The reader might have the same ambivalent response to the book’s production. The pages graduate from shining white to half-tone grey, creating the effect that the reader is reading the book into the night as the light fades and the words melt into the background. It also startles the reader at the suddenly dazzling whiteness of otherwise ordinary pages. This modish and, y’know, zeitgeisty production is carried through to the content. Of the father’s job, Butler writes: “If asked he could not say for certain what the work was. Mostly all he did all day any day was look into a blank screen flush with light. Sometimes the father looked at porn or ads or sports scores, but mostly just the light.” Light as a motif is almost comically overused in literature – it recurs here in the prologue and epilogue – but you get the feeling that Butler knows when he’s riffing on other writers. The oppressive house, for example, most obviously recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, and elsewhere a long and gripping list of famous people’s deaths brings to mind David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. Is this Butler’s way of telling us what this is or is not?

Such a declaration hardly seems necessary; There Is No Year fights the traditional novel at every page turn. It is not difficult to read – the language is mostly plain. But it is difficult to understand, perhaps even impossible, if by ‘understand’ we mean to infer clear and coherent meanings to the words. (To quote a very different writer, Douglas Adams, when asked what the message of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was, said, “No message. If I’d wanted to write a message I’d have written a message. I wrote a book.” Or if a more comfortable literary register for you is Nabokov, he made a similar disclaimer for his own work.) Yet one cannot say that the book lacks clarity or unity – the tone, events and characters are consistent throughout. Themes recur, particularly the disposal of things: the copy family, a hard drive, a mysterious egg, caterpillars which multiply in a mailbox, are thrown away, buried, destroyed. The writing can soar through its self-imposed limitations, as in this passage where the mother discovers an odd quality of the strange egg she finds in the house:

When she kissed the egg a tone would sound inside the shell. The tone triggered something in her brain that made her shake with vast orgasm. It erased all previous tones. Her body shuddered reeling, clobbered taut. The mother felt guilty and enormous. Her certain veins clenched into bouquets. It had been more than several years. The mother could hardly keep herself from squealing through the small house in the night – she had to bite a wooden spoon. She bit through it. She kissed the egg until her eyes went bloodshot and her brain swam fat with glee. The next day she could not stand up. Nor the next day nor the next. Her lower muscles scored and knotted. The mother hid the egg inside her nightgown. She moaned with ache late into the evening. The father went to sleep downstairs.

That last sentence shows the unexpected humour, not always subtle, that surfaces from time to time. (One chapter, about a menacing box which frightens the son, is titled ‘Another Fucking Box’.) It emphasises that all Butler’s tricks are in language. The short declarative sentences which make up the book, parsed individually are unremarkable, but put together frequently seem incomprehensible. The relentless alternation of banality and horror keeps the reader surprised, so there is no slack. Many novels have a structure into which the words are slotted, and the structure is there behind them and can be seen by the reader, occasionally (or frequently) becoming visible when the language slackens. Here the structure is the language, a web of words which has no recognisable form underpinning it. Butler understands the failure of language to convey any individual’s reality, as when the mother falters, observing that “By the end of early evening, the house felt mostly new. If not new, clean. If not clean, better. If not better, something.” Or when the father finds language failing him altogether. “Clordbedded ahst forb, said the father, alone upstairs.” We see from Butler’s ability to turn it on that when the language fails, it is because it needs to.

What There Is No Year does most impressively is to emphasise the importance of literature as a solitary experience, despite the attempts by book clubs and online forums to persuade us that it is a communal, collective one. Here the book is so uninflected and open that every reader will have a wildly different experience. Many will hate it, some will love it, and a few – count me in – will veer, settling on a positive response through the book’s sheer, wilful, beautiful difference.

June 16, 2011

Ali Smith: There but for the

Posted in Smith Ali at 8:00 am by John Self

It once occurred to me that the best books are those which absolutely divide opinion. I no longer think that’s necessarily true – if I ever did, beyond finding it a neat shorthand – but it came to mind when reading Ali Smith’s new novel. Look at the Amazon ratings for her last novel proper, the Booker-shortlisted The Accidental: an almost even spread from one to five stars. Yet I was a mixed sample myself with regard to that book: defending it from those who thought it too “complex” or (the red mist word) “pretentious”; but unconvinced by those who considered Smith the great white hope of contemporary British literature.

There but for the carries its fragmented intent from the title, so no one should be misled. The broken sentence suggests its own missing parts. That in itself – something unsaid but obvious – is a pretty good indication of what to expect with Smith. Martin Amis several years ago observed, in an attempt to take possession of a critic’s dismissal, that “someone once said of my work, and I didn’t mind it at all, that I deal with banalities delivered with tremendous force,” adding, for the avoidance of doubt that he really didn’t mind at all, “That’s fine by me.” His reclamation of the insult is not very convincing, but it’s one that might be applied to Smith also. In both The Accidental and her recent Canongate myths book, Girl Meets Boy, she has a masterly control of style but an unfortunate tendency to bash the reader over the head.

By that I mean that her sentences are just so, her structure is careful and contains enough gaps to make the reader do a manageable amount of work to fit things together. However in some important respects she leaves little to the imagination and even tends to impose thoughts on the reader. To explain that I had better go into more detail about the story. It’s somewhat high-concept, and it easily summed up by the opening sentence of the first full chapter, titled ‘There':

was once a man who, one night between the main course and the sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party.

The man is Miles Garth, and the book is structured in four parts from the viewpoints of four people who know him. There is Anna, who met him twenty years ago at university and on whom the dinner party hosts call to try to persuade him out of the bedroom. (He stays there for a long time.) There is Mark, the man who took Miles to the dinner party as his partner. (Miles is a vegetarian, but the owners of the house sustain him with slices of cooked meat under the door, as though appearing in a joke with no punchline.) There is May Young, an elderly woman nursing a decades-long trauma which Miles may have caused but also helped her recover from. (The lock-in lasts for months, with implausible levels of media interest, and reporters camped outside the house.) Finally there is Brooke Bayoude, a nine-year-old girl whose parents are neighbours of the dinner-party couple and who seems to be the wisest of all.

The book’s strengths are significant. Smith ties the stories together well, dripfeeding information through the viewpoints of her four central characters (the book’s true centre, Miles, doesn’t get a voice of his own but we learn plenty about him from the others). Her characters are sensitively drawn, though it’s an ability she is unwilling or unable to extend to the secondary cast, in particular the dinner party hosts and guests. Smith makes them ridiculous bourgeois stereotypes, working in Canary Wharf, obsessed with the fabric of their homes, insensitive to difference (homosexuality, vegetarianism); easy targets. Early on there is an email written by the dinner party host which made my toes curl with its petty mockery of the character’s language skills. It should not be beyond a novelist of Smith’s skill to extend empathy to unlikeable characters as well as likeable ones.

Her resistance to convention is her best quality. An allegorical prologue is one of the strongest scenes in the book. The story overall has a carefully implausible ring to it, and it is as futile to argue that the hosts should break down the (“18th century!”) door and remove Miles by force, as it would be to suggest that the characters in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go should have battled their fate. Their fate was all our fates, and Miles’s self-imposed isolation within a home says, “There but for the grace of God go I;” though Miles doesn’t go, he stays. Every story in the book has something to say about how we live with or without other people: we skip forward to see the effect Miles’s stand-off has on the family who unwillingly host him; we learn about Mark’s mother and the trauma she bequeathed to her household; we see May Young awaiting transfer to a nursing home, and dreaming of escape even at the far end of life.

There is also an interest in modernity, how we communicate now and the way our experiences shift as a result. The book’s present day is the last couple of years, and in the first part Anna observes the CCTV cameras everywhere and reflects on “what a paranoid, jealousy-maddened love affair just walking down any British street in 2009 resembled.” Smith’s attention to detail is her forte as a writer, and it is also evident in the production and paraphernalia of the book (the three dedications, the five epigraphs, the careful choice of types and formatting). Yet this penchant for detail might also be a weakness, if it is the cause of the coolness, and the lack of intimacy I felt at times. It is hard to locate the novel’s centre, and there is a sense that Smith is holding something back, tempering her talent in order to make her tantalising story neater and more palatable. She is at her best when giving the reader something to do, and taking risks. She should do it more, allow her delicious river of language to flow; publish and not be dammed.

June 9, 2011

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz

Posted in Enright Anne at 8:00 am by John Self

Anne Enright’s last novel was published to no fanfare at all (though some noticed it), and went on to win the Booker Prize. I liked The Gathering on balance – just about, I think – but my main issue with it was an unexpected one. Normally I would be dismissive of those who reject a book for not having likeable characters; with The Gathering, it wasn’t so much that I thought the narrator Veronica ridiculous and risible, but that I was fairly sure Enright didn’t intend her to be so. I hadn’t intended to read her next novel until I read wild praise for it from trustworthy sources.

The Forgotten Waltz, in other words, carried expectations both high and low. Perhaps the experience of The Gathering softened me up for it (I had better note that I couldn’t even finish the baroque sentences of Enright’s earlier novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch). Here the language is plainer, the character no less spiky, the result more purely pleasurable. This is not to say that Enright makes any concessions. Again she presents not a character or caricature but a real person, a real woman relating the tangle and contradictions of real life. She has no interest in charming the reader or attracting sympathy (though that is a disarming quality in itself).

The value of Enright’s writing is to take on the task of making the most hackneyed subject matter into a necessary work. She has written the story of a love affair. Partly what distinguishes it is its setting, around and after the Ireland’s great property crash of 2008 and beyond. The financial crisis, probably the biggest boom-to-bust in Europe after Iceland’s, affected families in Ireland as only money can, but for Enright it is reinforcing, not causative. Her narrator, Gina, an IT professional in her early 30s, is married to Conor (“The internet was made for Conor: the way he was always interested but could never settle on one thing”) when she meets Seán. Seán is much older and no looker – “not exactly a siren song” – but in the usual unexplainable way, gradually and then suddenly, they begin an affair. It is sexy but unromantic. After their first “adultery – I didn’t know what else to call it,” Gina feels “suicidal. Or the flip side of suicidal: I felt like I had killed my life, and no one was dead. On the contrary, we were all twice as alive.”

What else distinguishes this book? Scott Pack said “there really is no difference between this and the many volumes of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ that you see on sale in supermarkets and train stations.” If commercial women’s fiction is what we now call chicklit, I couldn’t disagree more. The Forgotten Waltz is the opposite of chicklit in that it brings news, it subverts expectations and does not give easy answers. In chicklit we know the formulas and the character types; here everything is made new. It is complex in its structure (Enright cites inspiration in Ford Madox Ford’s knotty The Good Soldier), though this complexity reduces to a very simple and beautiful effect. It is that each chapter (playfully named after romantic songs) seems to contain the entire affair, past and present, without making the time lines unfollowable. This can only come from an author who truly knows her subject and works the whole book to be steeped in it. Even when we think we know what the final status is – what’s happening in the ‘now’ of the narrative – we come to understand that there is no final status. Near the end Gina’s position seems to shift from consistent upheaval to one of tentative stability, merely threatened with upheaval – in other words, normal family life (if that is not an oxymoron).

The Forgotten Waltz is as much about family as The Gathering was. It highlights the contradictions of family and home life: the traditions and routines, the box it keeps us in which is also offers security, its status as a refuge or place of danger. Everyone in the book is acutely aware, as everyone in Ireland at the time was aware, of the financial and market status of their home. Gina always longed for a house with a sea view: “it didn’t seem a lot to ask – a house that would clean your life every time you looked out of it.” It would be facile to make the economic downturn into a metaphor for the turbulence of Gina’s love life (and one of the features of her story is its distinction between a love affair and love). Instead, the setting informs the characters – Irish people fixated with money and status, irrespective of their own level – and the characters inform the story. Some things, however, are universal. When Seán tells her she has “lovely skin, so soft,” Gina wonders, “Why did men need to persuade themselves? Why did they have to have you, and make you up at the same time?”

Bringing together the universal and the particular is Enright’s speciality, simultaneously bringing revelations of what other people are like while reassuring the reader that their own failings are normal. (Perhaps normal is not the word: usual, then.) “I wanted to sit where I was, and let time pass elsewhere. How do you do that?” asks Gina. How indeed? Meanwhile, one woman I know loved the book partly for the “the best portrayal I’ve ever read of a woman having an affair. I recognise it from the inside out.” By the same token, for me the book told me things I didn’t know. Gina, like Veronica in The Gathering, seems a cool, tough character. But any fictional creation as full and real as she is, must be by definition vulnerable, exposed, undefended because of everything she shares. Like the details of the property boom and bust or the involvement of Seán’s daughter (“the fact that a child was affected…”), Gina’s story is what it is. “Not pretty, but true.”

June 2, 2011

Alexander Baron: There’s No Home

Posted in Baron Alexander at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve had half an eye on reading something by Alexander Baron since a couple of commenters recommended him last year. That was in response to a post on Bernard Malamud, and Baron was suggested as an Anglo-Jewish writer to balance all the American- and European-Jewish ones I’ve been reading. Really it’s The Lowlife I’ve been looking out for, but when I saw that Sort Of Books were reissuing this one with their usual attention to detail (photographs, afterword, properly reset text unlike some publishers we could mention), I decided to start here.

There’s No Home (1950) is a war novel without any war. Its subject is that theatre of male aggression but many of the most important characters are women. And it deserves better than the awkward title Baron lumbered it with, which, although ripped from a relevant source (Hamish Henderson’s ‘The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily’), to me seems neither use nor ornament.

The novel tells us about the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, and how the British troops occupy themselves in the town of Catania when there is no fighting to be done. Baron opens with a curious authorial intervention (“Which war? It might have been any war. … But since most people like to know where a thing happened, and when, let it be recorded that this story takes place on…”). Thereafter the style settles down into plain, unobtrusive prose, which is one way of saying that on the evidence here, he is no stylist. (For that matter, the Anglo-Jewish aspect doesn’t much come across either, though I’m not sure what I was expecting.)

Being a representation of the experiences of a company of infantry, the stories of numerous characters are here, but dominating the narrative are Sergeant Craddock and Private Jobling. Jobling goes AWOL after his brother, also in the company, dies an accidental but preventable death; his grief drives him to determine revenge. Craddock, meanwhile, occupies himself the way we expect more of his colleagues to do: by shacking up with a local young mother, the beautiful Graziella. (By ‘attention to detail’ above, I mean things like the inclusion in this edition of a photograph of a girl, found among Baron’s personal papers after his death, who is believed to have inspired the character of Graziella.) Craddock joined the army having”lost track of his future.” His and Graziella’s fumblings toward an accommodation are nicely observed. There are tensions as the two try to avoid either the locals or the soldiers from finding out about their liaison, and the expected emotional tug as their story reaches its conclusion.

John Williams in his afterword makes a good case for Baron to be considered a feminist writer. He was a supporter of the Communist Party, and had long conversations (“all these discussions were serious”) with his fellow troops when training in the Pioneer Corps on what he called ‘The Woman Question’. (“I started by asking if it was right to refer to a woman as a piece of cunt.”) The women in There’s No Home are standing still, awaiting the return of their men, and trying to strike a balance between accepting the allied troops as their liberators and understanding that their husbands are, or were, the allies’ enemy. The few Italian men who remain see the allies as “men of war” and one sarcastically recites the list of great Italian buildings destroyed while the allies supposedly bomb the Germans.

Like this, the nicest touches in the book generally are cold-eyed rather than warm-hearted. There is a cynicism worthy of Catch-22 (but a decade before Heller’s book) when a senior officer composes letters of condolence to dead servicemen’s families:

‘He was loved by all who knew him.’ That was the usual thing. And ‘he died instantly, without any pain.’ Perhaps, ‘he gave his life trying to help a comrade.’ That was a laugh.

Later, the one thing that perks up the soldiers as they while away the days is the sudden feeling that the war has returned, when a German bomb explodes in a rubbish heap. When the tone becomes more sincere, there are occasional problems, such as an implausible scene where a mother who has recently lost her son becomes suddenly “emptied of her grief” through the rituals of religious ceremony and burial after death. “She walked lightly; her head was proud; there was a blind radiance in her eyes.” Perhaps this was supposed to show a delusion or delay in the return of grief, but it made me feel that the pages should have had one of those footnotes like an iPhone advert, saying “Sequence has been shortened.”

There’s No Home is, as indicated above, a book about war which is not about war. This is not just because it is set in a rest period and contains no fighting, but because the period of stasis which the men endure represents something more general. “Men can cope with the grimmest of prospects if they know what awaits them.” Like Sergeant Craddock, the men here – men and women everywhere – have “lost track of their future.” Those foolish enough to have expectations are brought down to earth by the more experienced and cynical. “Do you want to go back to the old grind after the war?” asks a young sergeant to his captain. “After the war?” comes the response. “Anyone can see you’re new to the game.”

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