A Beckoning War by Matthew Murphy

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!

Further Reading:

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.”


39 thoughts on “A Beckoning War by Matthew Murphy

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Interesting topic, I do wonder at the proliferation of war novels and probably would say on the whole I’m reluctant to indulge them even though I understand the humanity that is often portrayed within them, however there is no getting away from the fact tnat war is bloody, violent and forces man to kill humans, often doing so by means of propoganda, painting the people whom their leaders have a grievance against as evil, inhuman and other things that personally I don’t believe. I do think that ‘men’ can become those things and especially in their young adult years, when their emotions, hormones, ideals and desire to be/achieve something is at its pinnacle. But I think we all get sucked into whatever our nation’s narrative might be, to justify the very violent strategy that ironically is supposed to bring about peace. Peace can made through peaceful means, not through killing.

    So I read with dose of incredulity the many attempts to make war seem somehow heroic, romantic, tragic, and I find the narratives that try to make sense of it more appealing than those who really wish the reader to feel what it is like to be confronted by all that blood, guts, violence and tragedy.

    All Quiet on the Western Front is an exceptional read and fitting with what I’m talking about, his attempt to try and understand why they were at war, resulted in his works being banned and publicly burned, the author managed to escape, however sadly his sister for beheaded as punishment for her brother’s views. It is dangerous to speak out against the justification for war.

    Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is interesting, for it’s woman’s perspective and just as interesting how it affected her life on her return to society.

    On the other hand, I could not finish Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, way too visceral, I felt sick reading it, persevered and in the end decided there was no point. However my review did generate and interesting discussion on the merits of war literature. I don’t think it changed my opinion though.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree that reading about war just for the sake of war is not for me. But I do like it as a backdrop to other focuses – its extremes lends itself well to exploring ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Which is the reality for so many people. I also like learning the history and politics behind it, and even the geography. For example, I find reading about Italy during WWII interesting because that’s primarily where my grandfather was stationed.

      All Quiet on the Western Front is on my to-read list (has been for way too long)… I will have to dig it out one of these days to get a better sense of what you describe.

      I haven’t read Testament of Youth, but saw the movie, which was wonderful.

      I will have to go have a look at the discussion going on at your blog!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Claire!

  2. James says:

    It’s reaffirming when another feels the same way I do about a book, and reviews it with sentiments I wished I had said! 😊 Like racing through a scene to see how it turns out. What hit home with me about the book was Jim’s drinking before going into action. “Dutch courage” it used to be called. Now it’s a coping behavior. Who could blame him? War, a dissolving marriage and the pressures of leadership combined to overwhelm an otherwise average man. Well done, Naomi.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, his drinking struck me as well. I can totally see how/why he needed it to continue. Which is pretty horrifying. And then many of them come home and become a “burden” on families and society. So sad.
      I liked at the end that we get a short but strong glimpse of the fire Jim still has left in him. It would be interesting to read a sequel to his story.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I’m not really a fan of war books per se, in fact I frequently avoid them and skipped all the war bits of War and Peace (in my 20’s–I probably wouldn’t do that now). That being said, I have read some really good ones, but I think for me there usually needs to be something else going on in them, too.

    • Naomi says:

      I think the best war books *do* have something else going on in them. For me, they have to have good characters, which would usually include some backstory and interaction with other characters.

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    I’m reading a war book at the moment that I am definitely not enjoying, but I feel compelled to read on. It’s called The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and it’s just won the DSC Prize for South Asian literature. It’s set during the civil war in Sri Lanka and it’s the most ‘honest’ book about war I’ve ever read, because the central character (who narrates it) is a civilian, and the truth is that in modern wars, it’s mostly the civilians who die, not the soldiers.
    The other war book I’ve read that made a deep impact on me was called Kitty’s War by historian Janet Butler. (Already reviewed on my blog, the other will be soon). Kitty’s War follows the fortunes of a young WW1 nurse and it made me realise that the nurses were in just as much danger as the men were. They got killed by flying shrapnel and they got gassed, when they were injured they died of gangrene, and sometimes they died of the same diseases as the men did, such as typhoid. I think it’s significant that although Australia is awash with military histories, I did not know any of this until I read Janet Butler’s book.

  5. annelogan17 says:

    Oh boy this sounds like a great novel! I love the idea of exploring the different impacts of war on marriage. Whenever I feel sorry for myself about my husband travelling for work too much, I just think of the tough old gals who endured so much during the two world wars!

  6. FictionFan says:

    Generally speaking, war stories are not for me. I grew up in the aftermath of WW2 and heard enough about that war to last me more than one lifetime. I’m always interested in the politics of war more than the actualities – why they happened, what could have been done to avoid them etc.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see why you might have gotten a bit sick of hearing about the war!
      When politics enter the books, I think of it as a bonus. I like it too, as long as there’s not *too* much of it. What could be done to avoid them is probably the most important part of the story!

  7. madamebibilophile says:

    Great review Naomi, it sounds excellent and the writing in the quotes you pulled is wonderful. Generally I don’t read many war stories, although the appeal for me would be the study of humans in extremis rather than the warfare itself. This seems to focus on the characters so I think I could make an exception for this!

    • Naomi says:

      There’s a strong focus on Captain Jim in this book, his backstory, his marriage, how he is coping with and being effected by war. That’s definitely what I like in war stories, as well!

  8. Rebecca Foster says:

    Like others have said, I struggle with war books, especially ones set in WWI and WWII — I just wonder if anything new can be said. Often it takes a new setting or aspect to get me interested. You’ve definitely found that here with the picture of a marriage. (And it’s good to hear that the ending is not depressing!)

    • Naomi says:

      Well, the end is still kind of depressing in one way, but hopeful in another? It’s hard to explain without giving it away!
      One of the things I like about (good) war books is their ability to surprise me with new ways of telling the story. But I’m sure there are also many out there that are very same-y.

  9. Sandra says:

    Great review, Naomi, and such an interesting discussion. I do seem to be drawn to war novels despite an abhorrence of violence and the futility of war. I read them I think, for similar reasons to you. I want to learn and perhaps get closer to understanding what it must be like to be involved in some way – and there are many ways of being involved. ‘Lest we forget’ applies for me, perhaps. This book sounds like a worthwhile, if harrowing read. I know little about the Italian line and even less about how the war might have been from the Canadian perspective. Plenty to think about. Thank you!

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one drawn to novels about war. It’s definitely not that I think wars are great… but I think we can learn a lot about the world and ourselves from the ones that have already happened. Thanks for joining in the conversation, Sandra!

      • Sandra says:

        Yes, I agree. It also occurred to me after I commented that another reason I read war novels is to experience the writer’s perspective. I realise writers frequently write about situations they’ve not experienced – sometimes appalling situations and certainly unsavoury ones. And I’m in awe of writers who are able to take us into places and situations that neither we nor they have experienced and have us feel something of what it might have been like. Oh dear – a very poor attempt at what I want to say but hopefully you get the drift!

      • Naomi says:

        I totally get it! Agreed. And because war novels tend to take a lot of research (good ones), I imagine the writers have a passion or connection to the subject somehow. It’s definitely interesting to hear their different perspectives and areas of focus.

  10. Grab the Lapels says:

    I am so back and forth about war novels. I appreciate putting a human face on “soldiers” (and I use quote marks and use face–singular–because we really learn deeply about a solider and then project his feelings onto all soldiers. I read the entire U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos, which was mostly about warn and how people there and at home were affected; it seemed like I was only to get out of these books that soldiers cheated on their wives and girlfriends and brought home STDs. Then, other stories appear to romanticize war; the letters and that one photo, the woman waiting at home, etc. Honestly, the reason I loved Rilla of Ingleside so much was that the story was from the perspective of people at home who were active in helping on the home front, but avoided that weepy widow’s walk image.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I so loved the perspective of Rilla of Ingleside! It’s one of my favourites!
      I think one things I like (or think important) about certain war books is that they can take that romanticism out of war (if you read them). Most of the novels I read about war make it sound like hell. I guess it depends on what you read.

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        War fiction also suggests a “good guy” and “bad guy” when we know that’s not true. I’m even more leery of war memoirs, though, because readers get one person’s perspective and see it as “the gospel’s truth” about an entire war.

      • Naomi says:

        I felt like the good guy/bad guy in this book was the same person – from his perspective.
        I don’t know if I’ve ever read a war memoir…

  11. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    Like you, I read war novels for the history and to understand what it’s like to be in a situation I will hopefully never find myself in. I’m trying to think if any of the books have ever glamorized the war. I don’t think so, though, because even accounts of personal heroics usually mention the price the people involved had to pay.
    I like the perspective of this book. I don’t think I’ve read one like it so far, which only goes to show that there are indeed still new stories to tell.

    • Naomi says:

      This felt new and fresh to me, as well. It’s rare for me to follow a male character so closely in a book, for one thing.
      I feel the same way – most (if not all) the books I’ve read about war have taken it pretty seriously and seem to depict the realities of war. Even the love stories in them are usually painful.

  12. The Cue Card says:

    Unfortunately war is part of world history and part of our current times as well — so I feel books about war including novels must be read & not ignored. They give us perspective and truths that are hard to even imagine. I have read quite a few war novels and I agree ones that blend stories of action & personal backgrounds of characters & relationships are usually the best. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong & Charlotte Gray are quite good, and Suite Francaise etc. I might look for the novel you highlight — sounds like some great intense passages. Hmm.

  13. Katie Wilkins (@DoingDewey) says:

    I mostly read books about war to learn about history, although I’ve been much less interested in them the past few years. So much historical fiction centers around war, I find myself preferring books that don’t and which feel more unique to me as a result.

  14. buriedinprint says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the comments here and hearing the recommendations for other novels which consider the theme of war which have impacted other readers. I don’t think anyone has mentioned either Par Barker’s trilogy, beginning with Regeneration, which was so amazing that I read it twice! (It would make for a great companion read to Testament of Youth in some ways), or Timothy Findley’s The Wars (a favourite as well). A memoir that I read over the summer which stood out for me – if you are looking for one to add to your list – was Ajith Boyagoda’s A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return to Sri Lanka (written with Sunila Galappatti). Also, there are three lovely resources in the Persephone catalogue: Etty Hillesum’s philosophical diary, and one each from a German mother and an English woman. Didn’t you sign up for their catalogue recently? 😀

    • Naomi says:

      Ha! I’m trying not to go there… but it’s getting harder!
      I loved The Wars, but haven’t read Pat Barker’s books yet (I think I have one of them, but not the first.)
      The comments have been great!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s