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When Stephen Briggs returns to the town of his childhood to visit his elderly mother, he is forced to remember the events of the day that shattered his life and family, and caused aftershocks that are still rippling through this small community. Back in 1982, his parents had bought Highfield, a dilapidated old house overlooking the town. Richard would leave his career in the Army and together he and Mary would convert the barns into holiday cottages for rent and then live as much as they could off the land. But these plans changed when a sudden fight over a tiny group of islands on the other side of the world became Britain’s last imperial war. Richard found himself en route for the Falklands, a small war but a brutal one – and one which affected profoundly many of the men who served.
As he’d wandered through the decaying rooms of Highfield, scenes from their time there had played out with such clarity; parts of his life he’d worked so hard to banish, to eradicate not just from his own mind but somehow from history itself. It amazed him how far this could be done, the pious occupation of the present, a refusal to acknowledge what had passed, to allow it oxygen, for in what real sense did it actually exist?
This book, like Vowler’s first, What Lies Within, is being marketed as some kind of psychological thriller, but this is not only misleading, it actually does the book an injustice, as I felt it did to the earlier book too. Although there is a crime at the heart of it, in fact the book is about the trauma of war and how the effects of the psychological damage done to active participants can ripple out through society and down through generations. The book is told from several viewpoints, though each in the third person, and in two timelines. The present day section tells of Stephen’s return to the town, and the memories it awakens in him that he has tried unsuccessfully to suppress. The other timeline takes us back to the early ‘80s where the viewpoint alternates between Stephen as a child, and each of his parents.
Vowler’s strength is in his characterisation and again I was struck in this book by how convincingly he can write about his female characters. Although the story is centred around Stephen and his father to some extent, Mary is the character who rang truest for me, both as a young wife and mother in the earlier strand, and now as an ageing and somewhat isolated woman in the present. She’s not a heroine – just an ordinary woman struggling to cope with a life that hasn’t turned out the way she planned.
Both the main male characters are very well-drawn too though, and the picture of the young soldiers going off to an unexpected war is very convincing. At that time, peace had been the norm for a longish time, and people had almost stopped thinking of the Army as a fighting machine – apart from occasional tours of duty in Ireland, the Army was a good ‘career’ where young men (primarily) could learn skills that would earn them a good job in civvy street. The Falklands War changed that perception and Vowler shows how this strange but significant little episode affected soldiers and civilians alike.
It was what you signed up for, the prospect of this eventuality – and for many this bestowed nobility on the profession, there being no higher honour than to breathe your last defending your country. But what did you know of such matters in your late teens, when deep down you believed you’d live for ever? What did you know of the politics at play, the bureaucrats who sent people to die?
The book starts off as quite slow-moving and it took me a while to feel involved. Partly this is because in the first section, with Stephen as an adult, it is clear that he knows what happened on that day in the past, and keeping that knowledge from the reader feels contrived and creates an emotional distance. However as the story slowly unfolds, both timelines grow in emotional depth and, despite having been heavily signalled from an early point in the book, the ending is both powerful and moving. Another excellent book from Vowler, confirming my view from his first that he’s an author to keep a close eye on. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.