by Matthew Murphy
Baraka Books, 2016
Jim, 29, is living in Ottawa in 1940. Newly married to Marianne, he teaches evening classes, but is quick to leave behind his “world of quiet complacency,” not to mention Marianne’s “simmering silence” and “irritable resignation” at his decision, to be part of history, fighting on a “forgotten front” in northern Italy.
Reinforcements are thin, away from the limelight in Belgium and France, and every man must do the job of two. When we meet Jim, he has been apart from his wife for almost two years, “in a situation of danger as self-imposed as it is imposed upon the world.”
Machine guns snarl to life as Jim leads his soldiers, his “angels in khaki,” into “the livid, roaring inferno of combat (…) rifles in their hands or hanging loosely from their shoulders, teeth clenched, eyes wide, a unity of cells, a body of men.”
There is banter and wretched food. There are private little miseries and misfortunes, thoughts of home. There are mesmerizing marching scenes and powerful, lavish, feverish descriptions as the sentences run into each other and the horror unfolds, building toward a powerful crescendo and a delirious end.
This is not realism. This is heightened reality. As should already be apparent by now, the beautiful writing makes this adventure what it is. This is, after all, a novel in which even eating a chocolate bar is intensely poetic—”He opens a Hershey bar and sinks his teeth into the squares of waxy chocolate, his teeth twinging in satisfaction and in anticipation of another deep, sinking waxing bite.”—and even the rain is beautiful:
“It rains on and off all day, from drizzle to deluge to back again, rain pattering through holes in the roof of the church, plopping down onto and from beams and onto the cold stone floor and piles of broken masonry, streaking down the dusty pew backs and pooling on the benches, making mud of dust, pattering and dripping on helmets and shoulders in great dollops and splatters from beam and cornice; rain, rain, rain, at times torrential, beating down and building to a snare drum crescendo and then subsiding to a soft hissing drizzle, residual water drip-dropping hollowly through the shellholes and cracks during the lulls.”
There are so many beautiful turns of phrase I stopped underlining them. The writing is heavy, thick with meaning. It is neither messy nor tangled, but complex enough to convey the situation it describes, often building on previous associations and drifting close to stream-of-consciousness at times as we become ever closer to our flawed protagonist—while he and his world fall apart.
It is overwritten only in the sense that Cormac McCarthy’s work can at times be overwritten. It is not a criticism or a failing, just a style that builds and sways over close to 300 glorious pages.
Some parts are naturally more successful than others. At times, there is a French-like consistency to a flurry of nouns (“This cursory retreat home fades as the flicker of sanctuary is snuffed out in the displacement of passing shells”) and sometimes the author seems to have made a grab for the thesaurus once too often, with the odd “cutaneous remembrance” and “black print defamiliarized into hieroglyphs.”
But these moments of awkwardness are drops in an ocean of original, inventive prose that lives in the memory. The action scenes are especially successful in a war novel that’s full of dirt and light and heartfelt fear. Falling shells beat “the drums of misery” and artillery bears down on the men “in a terrific overlapping thunderclap.” “Flames hiss and crack and lash the sky red” and shards of glass are “pieces fallen from a fractured sky” as we march on through Jim’s vivid reality. It is writing that leaves its mark.