When Helen Dunmore died recently, the booky website where I serve as a moderator had several members who agreed to read one of hers. This was my choice. When I'm going to write about a book I always look at the one star reviews on Amazon, and this was no different. Today it was 11 of those against 140 five stars. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I found the reasons for not enjoying the read were odd to say the least (although I have heard the same comments many times before). "It wasn't going anywhere". Well, no, it isn't a thriller, it is the experience of a man who saw his best friend die in front of him in WW1. "Birdsong is better" - well yes, it may be, but again it may not. Both books are about WW1 and the tragedy of it all - but please, negative commenters, review the book!
This is not the first of Dunmore's I have read, and I have more on my shelves which I shall certainly read. Her books tend to be on the shorter side (this one is 292 pages), but they are always worth the read.
Dan comes home from the war with a few scrapes; a little thinner than when he went out to war, but physically not too bad at all. He comes home to find his home gone, for his Mother died when he was in France and his home was rented. Landlords want rent now, even though Dan was fighting to protect the country.... it didn't matter. And so he is taken in by Mary Pascoe who lives in a one roomed cottage just outside town. She is elderly and ill, and Dan takes over the garden, growing food, milking the goat, collecting the chickens' eggs, sleeping at night in a lean to-shelter, which whilst basic, is better than a dugout in the trenches over the Channel. Mary becomes sicker, and eventually dies. But not before telling Dan that she does not want to be buried in town in a churchyard "shoulder to shoulder" with others; and also that the cottage and land are now his. So he does what she asked. He wraps her carefully in canvas, digs a proper grave, and buries her at the top of the garden with a boulder rolled at her head. He cleans the cottage and, after the turmoil of the war, starts to try to live again. And doesn't tell anyone, nor register the death.
He is haunted by Frederick, his best friend's ghost, who appears, mud covered, and with his back to Dan at night. He re-makes his friendship with Frederick's sister and her child and maybe life will be better. But all the time he is possessed by the demon of that dreadful, awful war and the things that happened. The first 17 chapters have headings which are taken from real publications which are not called "How to fight and win a war" but in their nonsensical wordings could well be. The description of how to throw a hand grenade whilst walking single file in a trench made me so cross I had to stop reading and shout quite a lot.... it is just pure nonsense. But those are the kinds of things that were published. Honestly, if it didn't make you laugh it would make you cry. I certainly wept for Dan, knowing that whatever happened in France, his mental suffering would never be over - and there were many thousands like him at the end.
I found this a heart-rending tale of a broken man, seeking redemption for all that he had seen and done, not knowing how to put things right, and not knowing how to move on, whilst all the time trying desperately to do so. And so all I can say to the negative remark that this one "wasn't going anywhere", I can only say it doesn't need to. Heartbreaking but brilliant.