Of Merchants and Heroes, by Paul Waters

Of Merchants and Heroes is a piece of historical fiction which seems to be endeavouring to distance itself from the usual offering of fiction set in the Roman Empire. The title suggests that this is a story not of battle-hardened soldiers toiling for glory, but of a simpler life and simpler heroics. It is successful in part. The heroics are simpler. The protagonist, Marcus, is not driven by ambition of glory for himself and the empire – but by a revenge pact which ends up taking over his life. But for a novel which is trying to do something different, it still falls back into the usual grooves. Marcus does not remain a merchant but becomes a soldier – seemingly the only way for a fictional hero to make his way in the ancient world. Marcus makes a very conventional soldier-hero too, and overcomes all obstacles thrown at him – he is instantly liked by the ‘good’ characters, and disliked by the ‘bad’ ones.

This is not to condemn the novel by any means. Where the book really does succeed is by setting the bulk of the action in the Greek cities of Southern Italy, and then in Greece itself. It is refreshing to read a piece of historical fiction which is not enslaved to the city of Rome itself, or to more well-known arenas of Roman history such as Julius Caesar’s rise to power, or one of the infamous Emperors. Instead this book enjoys exploring the relationship between the Greek city states and the burgeoning Roman Empire. It uses both the major plot of the complicated and brutal war with Macedonia, and also the romance between Marcus and an athlete, Menexenos, to examine attitudes toward Hellenistic culture and the differences between the two countries which to modern eyes may at first seem very similar.

Overall, an interesting read. It is refreshing in as much as it doesn’t follow all the usual trends of historical fiction, but it does revel too much in this distinction. The author spends too much time detailing the relationship between Marcus and Menexenos and not enough time telling the reader how delicately the future of Greece is balanced. One is left with a small sense that the ending of the novel could somehow have been made slightly more powerful.

It could be worth comparing this novel to another written by Waters, Cast Not The Day. Although set in a more frequently-depicted era, that of the Roman Empire on the eve of its abandonment of Britain, it sounds as if it could pursue some interesting ideas.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker

A thoughtful, sombre and unafraid novel which explores the mental state of soldiers – and civilians – affected by the First World War. Its chief character is the army psychologist Dr Rivers, who works tirelessly with his shell-shocked patients at Craiglockhart, even as he struggles with his own problems and cannot help diagnosing himself with war neurosis. Throughout this novel Rivers’ main concern is the problem of the comparatively sane Siegfried Sassoon and his protest against the war. The story weaves in and out of different patients’ perspectives, telling a small number of narratives which all add up to a very interesting account of soldiers’ reactions to the trauma of warfare, and how best to deal with it. A particularly effective moment in the novel is when Rivers is confronted with another doctor’s method for curing muteness, which essentially consists of torturing the patient by means of electric shocks until he speaks.

The most impressive feature of this novel is the ease with which Barker recreates real people. Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen – to name just a few key people – are distinctively and authentically characterised, and blend in neatly with characters of the author’s own creation. Neither type seems favoured above another. The conversations and interactions between the characters reveal the intricacies of the patients’ thoughts, and the wider perceptions of society concerned both the war, and those psychologically affected by it. Another major theme is the treatment of shell-shock, and indeed the treatment of conscientious objectors. Siegfried Sassoon’s case was a curiosity at the time, and a scandal – for he did not oppose fighting, merely the reasons for which it was happening. Regeneration teases out the thoughts behind Sassoon’s stand, and places him in the context of other soldiers mentally affected by the warfare.

All in all this novel is a convincing story of the First World War’s impact on individuals beyond the trenches – told in a way which makes the horrors of the trenches an ever-present part of the story without having to take the action to them. It tackles a difficult subject-matter and successfully depicts life from the viewpoints of a variety of different people.

The Siege, by Helen Dunmore

Set in Leningrad in 1941, this marvellously envisaged novel tells the story of Leningraders faced with the hardest challenge of their lives – enduring a winter siege in the face of a relentless German onslaught. It is not a story of war tactics and battles, nor is it even a story of the siege’s logistics. It is a story of Leningrad, and the people who live within the city, who make up the city. It is also a story which Dunmore writes so convincingly that her descriptions seem like first-hand experience.

Living in our cosy lives with no daily struggle for survival, it is impossible for us to conceive how appalling life can be under siege in war. Any war. Scenes of medieval and ancient warfare can seem particularly horrific to our modern eyes, but the narration in The Siege is even more effective because it deals with life close enough to the present day for a modern generation to identify with it. The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to the protagonists Anna and her father Mikhail, acquainting us with their lifestyles, their dreams, their regrets. We come to know them entirely, to understand their way of life… and to know that life in communist Russia is far from ideal. However, as the novel progresses, their dreams alter. Their lifestyles are upturned. Ambitions for the future change into hopes for survival. And Dunmore achieves this in such a natural way that it is impossible not to admire her writing. Not only is it structurally sound, but it is poetically written. She writes of Leningrad as a true Leningrader would. It is not simply a setting for her story.

The Siege is a stark reminder – if we ever needed one – of the horrors of war, both in the minutiae, and in the bigger picture. The siege of Leningrad was a ruthless onslaught against defenceless civilians, and Dunmore’s narration of their sufferings and struggle for survival is proof that warfare is a ridiculous, cruel and pointless phenomenon. The chief protagonist’s concern for her young brother Kolya is almost as ruthless as the siege itself. She deprives herself of morsels of food so that he might have an extra spoonful of honey, or a slice of bread. Dunmore manages to capture a child’s slow understanding of the siege without slipping into caricature. Kolya is as believable as Anna, Mikhail and the other adult characters, if not more so.

Overall, this novel’s brilliance lies in its ability to present the realities of war through the daily struggles of civilians, ranging from hospital workers to nursery minders and children. It never lets us forget the bigger picture, even while it focuses down on the importance of a single scrap of bread.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

An atmospheric story of romance and destruction, My Cousin Rachel is arguably just as good as the more famous Rebecca. The plot is centred around the mysterious woman who unexpectedly comes into the life of Philip Ashley, when his idolised cousin Ambrose marries her in Italy, and subsequently dies. Philip, who was raised by Ambrose, is heartbroken by his cousin’s marriage, devastated by his death, and harbours a strong resentment towards the woman who stole Ambrose’s affection and kept him away from him. His anger is driven by the troubling letters he received from Ambrose not long before his death, letters which seem to suggest that Rachel was the cause of his untimely demise… When Rachel turns up at Philip’s Cornish home, high emotions come to the fore, and fate has more cards to play.

Du Maurier’s work is spell-binding because of her admirable skill in characterisation. She manages to portray the moods of the young and immature Philip Ashley so convincingly that the reader at once understands his narration from his point of view, but is also able to see further than he can himself, and interpret his behaviour – and that of the other characters – more than he does himself. The book’s plot is tantalising and engaging, the characters well-rounded, interesting and sympathetic. The prose is beautifully executed, and the structure of the book is magnificent. From the opening sentences – “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” –to the last words, which are actually the same as the opening, the reader is taken on a journey through Philip’s mind, his recollections of his life, his relationship with Ambrose, and with the woman who brings a certain paradoxical calm chaos upon his life in Cornwall. It is a rare novel which brings such a sense of understanding with its final words, as does My Cousin Rachel, and which also leaves some questions unanswered.

It is difficult to evaluate much more of the work without giving away aspects of the plot, which is full of suspense. The story is a good mystery, with cliff-hangers aplenty, hints of things to come, and a constant sense of foreboding which does not put the reader off, but is the engine and powerhouse of the story.

This review follows my listening to the audiobook version of My Cousin Rachel, narrated by Jonathan Pryce. It is an excellent rendition.

Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Snuff is the latest novel in Pratchett’s world-famous Discworld series, but twists the usual formula by playing up to the world of Jane Austen. At first glance this might sound ridiculously improbable, but think a little more, and you’ll see how well it fits. Sam Vimes, the star of many of the Discworld books, has finally taken a holiday into the countryside, where he is confronted by members of the gentry who live in large country houses and have a completely different mode of living to the one he knew in the city. He riles against the bizarre traditions of the nobility, and is perfectly placed to understand the social problems of both countryside and city, being a humble city copper now raised to the rank of Watch Commander and married to the aristocratic Sybil Ramkin.

As always, Pratchett’s essentially humorous flight of fancy runs along a serious theme, and in Snuff, it is mainly that of racial equality and social prejudice. At the heart of the book lies the problem of goblins, and whether they should be treated as equals with the other humanoid races of the Discworld. The problem is brought to the fore by the brutal murder of a goblin girl – an act which sets Vimes well and truly on the warpath to setting the world to rights.

Snuff is a masterpiece because it succeeds in marrying the complicated and bizarre world of the Disc with several allusions to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is not only the countrified setting which joins the two, but also the theme of social prejudice, and a few nods to Austen in bringing into the story a family of five daughters, one of whom is named Jane and wishes to be a writer. It is also strangely apt that Pratchett’s witty writing style and clever sentences have so much in common with Austen – while of course remaining in a wholly different genre, and one would imagine, readership.

Snuff is less fast-paced and more thoughtful than some of Pratchett’s other books, but readers of Discworld should rest assured that the master of modern fantasy and wit can still deliver the goods.