I picked up a mint condition paperback copy of Elizabeth Speller’s book a couple of days ago, started it almost at once and then could hardly put it down. I see the book has been out for a while so I’m behind the times as usual but I hadn’t read any reviews and didn’t know what to expect.
This is really a mystery story; an attempt to discover the truth about a single event in the First World War. That makes it reminiscent of the terrific A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. Laurence Bartram has come through the war without serious injury. His wife and baby son are dead; he’s writing a book in a desultory way; his life seems to have little purpose. Then the sister of an old school fellow contacts him. Her brother John also survived the war but with severe psychological problems. He absconded from a nursing home and then killed himself and Mary wants to know why. She gives Laurence what turns out to be a collection of clues: old photographs of unidentified people, meaningless lists of names, drawings, poems.
Laurence feels he didn’t really know John well but takes on the task, little dreaming where it will lead. The following up of the clues, the piecing together of scraps of information from different sources, the strange connectedness of things all make for a gripping story. Laurence is helped on the trail by his friend Charles, ‘who had seemed old at thirteen and would seem young at eighty’. I took a great fancy to Charles and his cheerful, practical attitude and surprising toughness. The combination of detective story with tales of the horror of war and the problems of shell shock and what we now call PTSD works really well, and just when you think all ends have been tied up, the book still finishes ambiguously, showing how hard it is to know everything about the past.
Anyone who read my recent ‘please shut up about the First World War’ rant may wonder why I chose to read a book specifically about the aftermath of the war. There’s a great difference between a properly researched book like this one and those novels which, without being *about* the war, use it in a sloppy way as mere colour to the story, hoping to provoke a kneejerk sympathetic reaction in the reader. I explained why I so dislike this in a post I wrote for Armistice Day in 2008, here.