Struggles behind the front line

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Tom Deveson reads First World War novels about life in the trenches and at home

PRIVATE PEACEFUL. By Michael Morpurgo. Collins Children's Books pound;10.99

LORD OF THE NUTCRACKER MEN. By Iain Lawrence. Collins Children's Books pound;4.99

SOME OTHER WAR. By Linda Newbery. Barn Owl Books pound;5.99

A QUESTION OF COURAGE. By Marjorie Darke. Barn Owl Books pound;5.99

The new novel from the Children's Laureate, Private Peaceful, is infused with passion and indignation - eloquent and memorable passion on behalf of the young men, British and German, who suffered on the Western Front in 1915-1916, and resolute and articulate indignation about the death by firing squad of those "cowards" who finally found the hellish circumstances too much to bear.

He tells the story of two brothers from Devon. As the clock ticks away on Charlie's last night on Earth, Tommo recalls intense memories of their village school, their father's death, tickling trout, scrumping, skinny-dipping and young love.

Though beautifully written, it is not all lyrical. The realistic harshness of rural poverty is there too, but even in recreating the grimmest episodes, the prose remains fluent and luminous. After the brothers enlist, they enter the Ypres salient, a poisoned land of rats, lice, gas attacks, bombardments, limitless mud, craters and corpses.

This subject is not new in fiction but the writing is again strong and attentive to detail. Yet there is always the sense of an even more terrible event inexorably approaching: the destruction of a young life, not by the enemy, but through the hasty order of a court martial by superior officers condemning "a worthless man". Morpurgo has written the book to commemorate the 290 men thus executed and to point to the continuing injustice of their not receiving a posthumous pardon. He has created characters full of ineffaceable poignancy, warmth and dignity.

Iain Lawrence squeezes his World War I story into the two months between October 1914 and the Christmas truce. In Kent, Johnny obsessively plays out - and sometimes seems to prefigure - events in Flanders with the wooden soldiers made for him by his father.

There are also parallels with Homer's Iliad, which he is studying. Johnny watches his pretend troops fade and decay under the assault of mud-balls.

His dad has time to write long letters, to take part in elaborate and exhausting military activity, and to carve the toys of the book's title.

There is some fine incidental imaginative writing, but the symbolism seems strained and the episodes not always plausible enough to evoke the fear and pity they strive for.

Linda Newbery first published her book a dozen years ago, but it has lost nothing of its effect. She takes a brother and sister through the four years up to 1917. Jack, a groom, goes to war; Alice leaves domestic service to become a nurse.

Newbery does an excellent job of showing the gradual arrival of hostilities and the complex social antagonisms of 1914, though the upper-class officer is initially something of a stage villain.

There is an intriguing Home Front cast, including some bohemian pacifists, but the true power of the story comes from the slow accumulation of bereavements and the sense of both minds and bodies being smashed. Sex becomes - subtly and gracefully - life's instinctive response to the forces of destruction.

Although Marjorie Darke's novel is a quarter of a century old, it also remains timely and vivid. Emily Palmer, a Birmingham seamstress, exploited by her female employer and her father and brother, is introduced by a rich client to the movement for women's suffrage.

She has to deal with the problems of full commitment - there are painful scenes of prison and force feeding - as well as the fact that some of her co-strugglers have "nothing in common except their sex".

Her introduction to love and her sympathy for her conventional mother are well done; so too are the hints that there is far worse violence to come in 1914. This is good history, good psychology, good sociology and good fiction.

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