That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

that dark remembered day“Dulce et decorum est…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

The bombing of HMS Antelope
The bombing of HMS Antelope

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?

Tom Vowler
Tom Vowler

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

27 thoughts on “That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

  1. I like your Review, as always, but Vowler is not a writer to my taste. I am a reader who MUST be vested from the first page. In my view of the matter, his work tends to drag.

    • Yes, I don’t think that’s an unfair criticism, but for me the quality of his writing and characterisation stop the books from feeling too slow. I’ll be interested to see how his style develops in future novels.

  2. FictionFan – Thanks as ever for the excellent review. Among many other things it’s a very clear reminder that giving a book a label (in this case psychological thriller) can be far too limiting. Lots of books are, as you show here, much more than one thing. And I’m glad the Falklands years are explored here – a time I don’t think we know enough about if I can put it that way.

    • Thanks, Margot! I think the Falklands war has been forgotten to an extent because of all the bigger wars that have followed it. But it had a huge impact here at the time in all kinds of ways – social, political, militarily…and of course for the people directly involved in it, the impact was much more personal.

  3. It does seem like an different type of book, for sure. Kudos to you, FEF, for sticking it out. I would have stopped early on, I think. That’s what happens when you’re a professorish reader.

    I do think he shouldn’t be reading a book when he’s photographed.

    • I don’t always stick them out – abandoned The Quick yesterday – too dull. But Vowler is a very good writer, so I’m always confident his books will be worth it in the end.

      It might not be a book – maybe he has a lovely little puppy on his knee…

  4. PS Frafully KIND of you to embark on Luminaries. I have been struck by reservations, following her first, as I think she may play clever games as a device a little too much, but was really wanting a guinea pig, so am very gratefully you are whiffling your little whiskers in a bright eyed way, and will wait and see whether you squeak with delight or snuffle irritably and scrabble your paws crossly

    • Well, early days…I like her writing, but she’s going to have to have a really interesting story to maintain my interest for 900 pages…the Kindle reckons it’ll take me over twenty hours to read it, which is a huge committment unless it’s pretty special.

  5. Great review, as always. On the strength of your review of his previous, I put it on my TBR, but I haven’t got to it yet, so I think I’ll hold off on this one. So many books, so little time…… 🙂

    • They’re quite different – the first is much more about an actual crime than this one, though both are pretty character driven. I think you’ll enjoy What Lies Within…

  6. I love your review of this excellent book. It was different to the first book and I’m glad that you agree with me that the marketing of this as a psychological suspense novel is doesn’t do the book justice… I’m still thinking about this one now which considering I wasn’t sure for a while when reading it is amazing.

    • Yes, I think we agreed very much on this one. Like you, I wasn’t sure at first but I knew from your review that it would probably be worth it in the end – and it was. Very powerful – and I really haven’t come across any other novels set around the Falklands War. Vowler is definitely on my must-read list now…

        • Cleo, have you read Patrick Flanery? I really think he’s a brilliant new author, and the kind of thing you would enjoy. His second one was my Book of the Year last year, but his first one Absolution was about South Africa after apartheid – the guilt and reconciliation aspects. Sorry – I know your TBR is as bad as mine, but I can’t help recommending it to you. Hopefully you may have read it when it was a Vine choice years ago!

          • 😦 No I haven’t read it and having had a quick look I now know that both of these will probably end up on the TBR… Seriously thanks for the recommendation it is easy to miss excellent books if they are not pointed out

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