by William Brodrick
Chosen by our book group. I not sure why we chose it, or what the alternatives were – I probably missed the meeting where it was selected. I got this book from the library and read it within ten days – but it was a bit of a slog.
Not sure exactly why I had so much trouble with this book. I found it incredibly slow-moving at first, and the pace never really picked up, although my reading pace did. I found myself reading ahead and jumping around in the narrative. This didn’t make it any easier to follow the story, such as it is.
The action in this novel is quite restrained: a contemporary monk, Anselm, begins an investigation into the First World War experiences of another monk, Herbert Moore, now dead. Herbert was the brother who first welcomed Anselm into the order. We learn next to nothing about Anselm; his role is that of an investigator, uncovering the truth. In this respect this book may be said to resemble a thriller – but its crawling pace is out of keeping with any thriller I have read recently.
The author looks deeply into motivation and legality of actions in times of war, and the lasting effect that wartime decisions and actions have on the actors long after the war is over. Two key experiences appear to shape Herbert’s life: his mercy shooting of a soldier in his unit who appears to be drowning in the mud of Flanders, and his part as one of the officers on a Field General Court Marshal trying an Irish deserter. The ‘back story’ is mainly that of the deserter, another deserter with whom he apparently changes places, and – to a much more limited extent – of Herbert himself.
There are nuances in the plot. Herbert has been disciplined himself for a similar offence, and perhaps for this reason the judgment weighs heavily on him. It is implied that Flanagan was statistically more likely to be sentenced to death because he was Irish. The soldier with whom Flanagan at one point changes identities has enlisted under an assumed name, and is really under age.
The other officers in the story come across as real people – some of them career soldiers, but most of them men who have just ended up on the battlefield and try to come to terms with the terrible things they are being asked to do.
Women don’t feature much in this novel. The landscape, however – on the Ypres salient, around the convent of Larkwood and on Flanagan’s home island of Inisdúr – features greatly in the lives of each of the main protagonists.
Writing these words, two weeks after reading the book, I wonder why I found it so hard going. It is in fact an interesting topic given a sensitive approach. All the same, I don’t think I will be rushing to read anything else by this author, and I can’t give the book more than 6 out of 10. It would have earned a 7 if the story could have moved along a bit faster!