A tangled web of love and betrayal develops when war hero Paul returns from the trenches. He finds himself torn between desire and duty, his lover Adam awaits but so too does Margot, the pregnant fiancée of his dead brother. Set in a time when homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name, Paul has to decide where his loyalty and his heart lie.
Review by Erastes
I devoured this book. It was like comfort food. English to the core and had (for me) the same effect as scoffing steak and kidney pudding. I wallowed.
It’s based just after the First World War and Paul has returned home after 18 months in a mental hospital due to a severe case of shellshock. His brother, whom he and everyone else adored, has been killed – ironically after the armistice -in a car crash. Paul’s “queer”, and is discreetly continuing a relationship with Adam that he had started before the war. When his brother’s girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant by Robbie, Paul has some choices to make. It’s further complicated by Pat, a man damaged by his past, who was Paul’s sergeant and who has, or so he thinks, an unrequited crush on Paul.
What I loved about this was the frank and bleak look at men returning from the trenches. None of them are whole, Paul’s eye was “dug out by a rusty spoon” and he still wakes up screaming with shellshock, Mick (Pat’s brother) has lost his legs, Adam was “unfit for service”, and most families in the town have lost someone, but still – it’s a very English novel, with the world moving on, people drinking tea and getting quietly on with their lives. The country is changing, women are working, women are smoking, women are going out when pregnant! (Another nice touch about this book is that there are women characters who resonate and aren’t just there for decoration or to be The Bitch.)
The author is deft and skilful in the way the story unfolds – which is told partly in flashback. There’s a mystery at the heart of the book too; we are told that something happened to Paul in the trenches (other than the normal!); something involving a man called Jenkins and it takes the book to unravel what happens whilst still coping with about six different plotlines. Impressive.
If I have one tiny quibble, I’d say that it didn’t, to my mind, get deep enough into the character’s points of view, I think Pat was the character who’s head we were deepest into, and with such dark subjects – and with such choices to be made I would have like to have known more of what people were thinking. Perhaps it should have been longer to try and encompass this, perhaps it was a tiny bit ambitious for a first novel. That being said, even without a deeper POV, the characters are very memorable and I was rooting for all of them even though I knew that it couldn’t ALL work out in a pat fashion.