Monday 16 May 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young. Harper Collins hbk £12.99.

The title of this book comes from the wording of an official postcard, sent by wounded soldiers during the First World War, to announce to their families the extent of their injuries. A facsimile of the card appears on the front endpaper. You’ll see spaces on it to be filled in by the soldier, announcing that he’s been admitted to a Casualty Clearing Station. There’s room for him to put in the date, and two options (of which he can delete one) ‘slight wound’ or ‘serious wound.’ The card then has the printed message: I am now comfortably in bed with the best of surgeons and sisters to do all that is necessary for me. This novel uncovers what ‘all that is necessary’ really means and I promise you, it’s quite an eye-opener.

Louisa Young is better known to ABBA readers, perhaps, as half of Zizou Corder who wrote the Lion Boy trilogy some years ago. She’s also the granddaughter of Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic and mother of Peter Scott. Lady Scott was a sculptor and the work that she did in the very early days of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction have clearly been part of the inspiration for this novel.

It’s a most unusual take on the First World War. We’re used to tales of courage and appalling conditions in the trenches; of deserters and conscientious objectors; of amazing gallantry; of friendships between the men and so on. Women are often very much in the background in such novels but here, they’re most important and each of the men we get to know is part of a love story as well as a war story. Riley Purefoy is the hero, and his journey through the narrative is particularly poignant and it’s to Louisa Young’s credit that we care about him so much and about whether he and his beloved Nadine will come through the trials that beset them by the end of the book. There’s a cast of doctors, artists, relations, friends which circulates around these two and the stories that spin off from the main narrative are heart-rending and terrifying and sad. But there’s also the fascinating account (sometimes hard to read, this) of the astonishing ways in which the faces of the dreadfully wounded were reconstructed by such pioneers as Harold Gillies. Sculptors like Young’s grandmother were called in to make casts of the men’s faces, and artists used to paint features on them which were as realistic as they could possibly be. This is something that I’ve not seen in other fiction about the First World War and if it makes you want to find out more, then there’s an afterword which tells us which books the novelist has relied on to make her fictional story as true to historical fact as it could be. It also tells us which of the characters in the novel are based on real people. One particular episode, perhaps the most moving thing in the book, turns out to be true but Young weaves it in seamlessly with the inventions and you can’t see the join. For anyone interested in this period, as well as for lovers of a cracking story very well told with no trace of sentimentality or soppiness, then this novel is just what you’re looking for.

THE HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford. Allison and Busby hbk. £12.99

If the First World War is much written about; if we feel we know it backwards, here’s a wartime episode about which I, for one, knew very little: the fact that in 1942, thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin were incarcerated in camps in the middle of the continent: rounded up from cities and communities where they’d lived for years and interned as ‘enemy aliens’ of a sort.

Rather in the way of two buses coming along when you’ve been waiting for a while, there seem to be some other books on this period and these events going about just now. There’s Lee Langley’s BUTTERFLY’S SHADOW for one, which was much praised by Lynne Reid Banks on a recent edition of The Book Show. And here we have a début novel with a very enticing title. It’s already a big hit in the USA and it’s easy to see why.

The story is simple and simply told. In 1986, Henry Lee, an elderly man of Chinese origin living in Seattle, sees that the Panama Hotel is being opened up after decades of being closed. Down in the basement of this hotel are stored all the belongings of the families who were rounded up in Seattle and sent away to the camps in 1942. Henry remembers, in chapters which go back to that time, his relationship with Keiko Okabe, a girl of Japanese origin and also how much he loved her. Their situation was complicated at the time by the fact that Henry’s father was violently anti-Japanese. So we have Romeo and Juliet and not only that but both Romeo and Juliet in this particular case are having to cope with being perceived as immigrants in the USA. Keiko, in fact, is more American than Henry. She was born in Seattle and can’t even speak Japanese, which makes her situation all the harder for her to understand. In the more modern story, Henry and his son have an edgy relationship and we learn about Henry’s wife who’s recently died of cancer. I shan’t spoil the story for readers by saying any more but it’s a good read which unfolds slowly and builds up to a very moving climax on several levels. There’s a great deal in it about jazz too, and the incidental colour and detail of life in wartime Seattle is fascinating. I thought it was a really interesting book about a period that's not very often written about, and I enjoyed it very much.


Elen C said...

They sound great. I've ordered a few of your recommendations from the library now and have enjoyed them a lot.
I'm a bit wary of war novels though. I cried in history class when we did the First World War. That seems to be my inevitable reaction whenever I think about the pointless loss of life. I find it very hard to take, even in literature.

Sue Purkiss said...

Both these sound very interesting, Adele. Snow Falling On Cedars, by somebody Guterson, also dealt with the incarceration of Japanese citizens in America in WW2.

adele said...

Yes, that's right, Sue! I did read the Snow book but remember only the thrillerish element and the weather.
And Elen, yes, some of the stuff in books about war is hard to get your head around, but this one is different from lots of others with the emphasis less on the fighting than the treatment after the fighting. Tremendous advances made in plastic surgery and so forth. Not that that's an excuse for a war, of course but you know what I mean. Tremendous story from the medical/surgical point of view.