Why do we read war novels? What do we get out of them? One of the reasons I love them is for the history. Each war novel adds to my knowledge of the various wars I’ve read about. I am always amazed by how much there is still to learn. I also like novels that make me feel; about life in general, or about the lives of the characters in the book. Good war novels can do that. And they allow me to experience, through literature, lives I will never lead (at least I hope not!), but that I believe are important to know about.
A Beckoning War, which takes place on the Gothic Line in Northern Italy in September 1944, has everything you might look for in a war novel; battles, trauma, guilt, heartache, impossible decisions.
But why choose it above other war novels?
1. A realistic portrait of wartime marriage. Many novels about war have some sort of love story in them, something or someone for us to be cheering for. This story has the opposite – a marriage that is falling apart because of resentment, time, and distance.
Jim and Marianne are still newly married when Jim decides to join the war against Marianne’s wishes. This becomes the source of much tension and many arguments between them until it’s time for Jim to go and leave Marianne behind, resenting his decision.
Once Jim has been overseas long enough to know how awful it is, all he has to keep him going are the memories of Marianne and the promise of her letters.
He can hear her voice through the medium of her pen, through tonal vibrations of squiggles and ink. She berates him in his ear as though she was in the room, stalking about, arms crossed. “Do you still love me anymore? Have you ever really loved me?” He can hear her, reserved, no nonsense, though with a touch of plaintiveness in her voice, a plaintiveness he neglected to consider when he enlisted. Reflected in her handwriting, orderly, precise, though canted to the right in a slight romantic slant and reaching outward with a curl, bringing to mind the curlicued locks of her sumptuous hair hanging over him as she kissed him from above in their bed, oft the prelude to making love. He sits on the bed. He can smell her perfume, the fruity fragrance of her freshly shampooed hair. Potpourri on the windowsill by the kitchen sink. He can smell bacon and eggs frying, he rubs her shoulders while she is stirring a pot, he is kissing her, he is taking her to bed for the first time, they are arguing, they are flirting, speaking in phrases remembered and half-remembered, half-formed and morphing impressions bubbling up from his subconscious, disremembered and remembered, a sensual broth formed of their experience together.
2. Characterization and the psychological effects of war. Jim went to war, not because he felt particularly patriotic, but because he felt lacking in some way. He thought war might be the perfect chance to prove his worth. It wasn’t long before he discovered that war actually made him feel like more of a failure. He feels guilt over leaving Marianne, responsible for the soldiers who are killed under his command, and shame that he feels inadequate and incapable of being a “good” leader.
What another man I am now. Kill, kill, kill my way back home. Just as most of them are trying to kill their way back home. Locked into mutual murder just to go home and escape it. Fight your way to peace. Kill your way back to life. Run madly for your sanity.
At home, Marianne waits and waits. Her resentment festers, the time that goes by distances them more than ever. She feels guilty for wanting to move on with her life while Jim is risking his in the war.
3. War imagery. If you’re looking for vivid war scenes and some action to go with good characterization, Murphy has that for you, too. There were moments while reading this book that it felt loud; the guns, the grenades, the screaming and shouting, the chaos was surrounding me, and I would race through the scene to get to the other side and a little relief. There is also an excellent sense of the exhaustion, the numbness, the terror, the sense of duty, and the shame.
The only thing scarier than battle is waiting for it.
There is a pounding in his ears, and he tears two pieces from a Kleenex tissue, wets them with his spit and plugs his ears to what little avail they can offer, the bombardment pounding at his eardrums like a battering ram at the gates of a beleaguered castle, rippling through his bones, shaking his teeth like chinaware, echoing through his head, the shrapnel of noise shearing and snapping the frail filaments bonding his thoughts, reducing the interior of his head to a crashing, jangling catastrophe of noise disrupting all possibility of coherent thought. Here and there, flash by flash, are illumined trees, houses, hills, recoiling guns and men in action, captured in flared snapshots, yellow and orange flicker, red glow, a purple bruise of clouds.
He surveys his company, the men weaving their way behind the protective bombardment, surveys for casualties as he himself moves forward, dragged ahead by the immediate demands of duty, pushed ahead and held together by the invisible but very tangible bonds of personal honour and regimental honour and national honour, bound in a web of expectations stretched between the king and the lowest and greenest of his privates, and threaded within his insignias and within the very values and fears and qualities of himself.
4. Matthew Murphy can write. His writing pulled me through 325 pages of grim and bloody war scenes, deafening gun fire, and absolute terror. Above all, I was blown away by a 28 page section near the end, during which time one of the characters is delirious . His thoughts are rambling and desperate; a mixture of pain, memories and hallucinations. It is terrible, poetic, and mesmerizing.
I think I’ll have experiences from this book seared into my head for a long while.
A beautiful debut with a hopeful, life-affirming ending.
Are you a fan of war books? Do you have any favourites? Why do you enjoy reading them?
Thank you to Matthew Murphy and to Baraka Books for sending me a copy of this book!
Review at The Miramichi Reader: “Mr. Murphy writes as if he were there in Italy among all the shelled buildings, dead soldiers, and lines of displaced persons and livestock… This book should be on the ‘to read’ list of those who find the struggle of fighting the ‘enemy within’ of interest.”
Kirkus Reviews: “While exploring McFarlane’s inner landscape, Murphy meticulously conveys the realities of war, from the ruined Italian countryside to the mixture of boredom and anxiety haunting the soldiers. All is done in exquisite style that places readers squarely in the action…”
Quill & Quire: “Montreal writer Matthew Murphy’s debut novel is told in prose that is muscular, explicit, disturbing, and yet so poetic that it can leave the reader dazed and breathless. Not for the faint of heart are the many apocalyptic, hallucinatory scenes of dying men calling for their mothers, human intestines hanging from tree branches, or descriptions of “mangled meaty mass[es] of torn flesh.”” and “Despite some overwriting, however, there is no denying that A Beckoning War is the product of an amazing new talent.”