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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Men's Wars written by Women - Historical Fiction Reviews

Three of my favourite books this year feature male protagonists at war and a mostly male cast of characters - and interestingly all written by women. I'd recommend all three books to men and women, whatever you might think of their covers.

The first is "The Return of Captain John Emmett" by Elizabeth Speller. 
This novel tells the story of an execution during the Great War. Laurence Bartram, himself consumed by grief at the loss of his wife and young son, is approached by a friend's wife to unravel the mystery of why he committed suicide. His investigations lead to the gradual piecing-together of an incident in the war. Similar to a detective mystery, most of the action is told by reports from characters who were at the scene, very much like examining the scene of a crime. In the novel references are made to Agatha Christie and Poirot, and this book has all the intricate plotting of a who-dunnit, except better, and with a much more moving revelation of the true conditions of war. As a historical fiction writer I enjoyed the fact that long parts of the book were reportage - how often are we told to show not tell? But these re-tellings in the characters own voices were gripping, and show that the author had really done her research. The horrors of trench warfare and the subsequent abandonment of trauma casualties post-war were brought chillingly to life. In the afterword she tells us that she used the papers of W.H.R Rivers who treated psychiatric casualties of the war and Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam as sources.

Which brings me neatly to the second of my favourites - Madeline Miller's "Song of Achilles".
Of course this has won the Orange Prize for Fiction, but I was three-quarters through it when the prize was announced, so it did not influence my impressions of the book. Madeline Miller's version of the story of Achilles relies on building up an intimate picture of Achilles and Patroclus before the War at Troy actually starts. What I loved about this book from a writer's perspective was that the use of language was so lyrical. In a modern book it would be impossible to use terms such as 'the rosy gleam of his lip, the fevered green of his eyes' without it sounding ridiculous, yet in Miller's hands such language feels right. She has managed to make the book epic and Homerian. If the book has a weakness it is that the actual conflict (which in reality lasts ten years) takes a little too long to get going, but once it does the action is unputdownable. The early lyricism works just as well applied to battle, and the fact that some of the story is told from a dead man's point of view only increases its mystical effect.In this book we believe in the Gods, and in the terror of the Gods, and the power of human love.

The third of my favourites is "Honour and the Sword" by AL Berridge.

Of the three, this is the most swashbuckling of my choices. It is written as a series of  interviews or memoirs from  France during the time of the 30 years war and so includes a number of different voices put together by a fictional professor - Edward Morton. Sounds complicated? Perhaps, but it works brilliantly. Like a patchwork this method gradually builds up the picture of events from all the partisan points of view. Told in the first person present tense, some of it is written in very modern-sounding English but this has the effect of drawing the reader in. Mostly told from the point of view of Jacques the stable lad, and his erstwhile employer's son, an aristocrat called Andre de Roland, the slow development of the relationship between these two boys is what glues the book together. We watch them through the highs and lows of warfare, through heroism and despair as Andre de Roland seeks to avenge his parents death at the hands of the Spanish. This book has some excellent set-piece action scenes, with gripping sword fights, pistols and cannon.At the climax the action zips from person to person in a few lines - and this filmic technique like cutting from shot to shot, was breathtaking.

Three great pieces of historical fiction, I recommend them all.

You can read an interview with AL Berridge here about why she enjoys to write books more normally associated with a male readership.


  1. The Return of Captain John Emmett and Song of Achilles are two of my favorites this year also. Great books by great writers. Definitely read Speller's The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which is her second in the series that Return started. Thanks for the great post. I'll have to look for Honour and the Sword.

  2. Hi Judith, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton is on my list, now I've discovered Elizabeth Speller, glad to hear it's as good as her first. I've read some great books this year. Thanks for stopping by.