It wasn’t until I noticed this novel lurking in the Times’s ‘ten best-sellers in paperback’ list last week that I remembered I had read it. Such is the depth of impression it made, and I had to quickly remind myself what it was about – I had a vague memory of the war being involved – by reading some online reviews. They were not overly kind – the New York Times called it “biscuit bland” (a wonderful phrase which I will surely steal); the Washington Post an “an unmeshed assemblage of case histories”; the Irish Times a rather tedious piece of retro-sexism; the Guardian “dithery” (although the quote from this review which the publisher chooses to focus on is “combining as it does the cultural narrative of a complex century forsaken by God and certainty, a serious investigation into the vulnerability of the human mind and an old-fashioned – in the best sense – story of love and war, this is an ambitious, demanding and profoundly melancholy book”. I think “dithery” is more concise!)
Briefly, Robert Hendricks, doctor who specialises in psychiatry, aged 60ish, lives alone and clearly has had problems forming long term relationships. Out of the blue he is contacted by a stranger who knew his father in the First World War and is looking for a literary executor. Intrigued Robert travels to a small mysterious island, and begins a series of reminiscences which slowly unfold the story of his life. The text is unnecessarily complex, with tales within tales. The mysterious island turns out not to be mysterious at all, just small (large enough to have a town, and a mayor, but not large enough to appear on maps). Hendricks is an unengaging character, in his mid-sixties and seemingly irresistible to women. What is it about novels by men of a certain age where women keep throwing themselves at the central male character, stripping off at the drop of a hat and offering him no-strings sex – even the prostitute he engages in the first chapter can’t resist him, and despite his reluctance she is “intent on a repeat”. Such a nuisance when there are some more war diaries to be read.
The reviewers are universally agreed that this novel really takes flight when the inevitable sections on the second world war arrive. I can’t disagree – the portrait of the attempted break out at Anzio is well-written, but there is nothing particularly new here, and the scenes of squalor and fear fit uneasily in the romantic and literary mystery that comprises the rest of the novel, a mystery that I found dull, clumsily plotted and episodic.
“Throughout my life,” Hendricks tells us at one point, “I had thought that if I could get through this section of it, then the pattern of a destiny would reveal itself.” I know how he feels. Was this quote an example of Faulks going all-post-modern on us, anticipating the inevitable criticism of this meandering novel, or just a happy coincidence?
Just as a post-script, I did find one point of interest in the novel. It is set in the early 1980’s.Hendricks is 60ish, which means he was old enough to have fought in the second world war. It was only at that moment that I belatedly realised out that the older adults around me when I was growing up in the 70’s were of the right age to have fought in that war – and that now so many of them are gone. It is an arresting thought that 1980 was nearer in time to the end of the second world war than it is to today. Faulks chose this point in time carefully, and well.