With hand on heart, I can say that this is one of the most achingly beautiful, and also most heart-breaking, novels that I’ve read. Our protagonist is Charlie Ashe, a farmer turned British soldier in Burma (now Myanmar) in World War II. In one of two intertwining storylines, we see him wandering in the Burmese jungle after losing his patrol, dazed by its vastness and beauty, even as he reels from the slaughter he’s witnessed. Alongside this story, we skip ahead a year or two and see Charlie again, after his return home to England. He has married his sweetheart and started a new life with her on a Norfolk farm, and yet he still finds himself struggling to come to terms with the trauma of his wartime experiences. The Charlie who has come back from Burma is not the same man who went off to fight, but can he, and his wife Claire, manage to find peace in the aftermath of tragedy? These two strands are woven beautifully together, but the real star in this book is Harding’s writing – eloquent and elegant – which gracefully probes questions of trauma, loss and memory, inviting us to think about survivor’s guilt, the strain of bearing witness, and how those left at home can never truly comprehend.
They had been sent to fight in a place of cloud. Sometimes the cloud was above them and other times it was below them as if the ground on which they stood was floating, as if they had come to an island and the cloud was the sea. It was a place none of them had ever heard of and he did not think that the Japs would have heard of it either.
Charlie and his battalion have come halfway around the world, and further still, tracking up into the north of India and then over the border into Burma, leaving behind the few familiar comforts of the British regime. They have been sent to fight and die in a land of mist, where shapes appear and vanish in the green-scented jungle. But why? They have no connection to this land, little of which has even been mapped, and the same is true of the men they’ve been sent to fight. They are all here because some generals, somewhere, have drawn lines on a map that must be defended. Harding shows us little of the wider army: we see Charlie either alone or, briefly, with the handful of men on his patrol. They are already traumatised and terrified, wandering in this strange forest with its damp leaves and distant, eerie noises. The few Japanese soldiers they meet are similarly disorientated, panicked, and bewildered. In this sprawling jungle, on the roof of the world, Charlie and his companions are no longer representatives of a particular army, but human beings dwarfed by nature. The mist, and the sudden dizzying glimpses of valleys and peaks, help to create a hallucinogenic vision of a world where borders and lines on a map no longer matter. When Charlie stumbles alone into the wilderness, he is given a vision of a world that’s simpler and more ancient – though not, by any means, less violent.
The jungle may be unmapped, but it’s not deserted. Half-feverish, Charlie encounters the Naga – people who’ve been described to him (by colonial officials) as primitive savages – who care for him, without any links of language or culture. It is a simple act of kindness from one human being to another. And as Charlie lies there, in this strange village, hidden high in the peaks like Shangri-La (as he explains it later), he clings to the sense of unreality, a notion of being safe and out of time, in this magical secluded place. Harding’s poetical flair is at its most gorgeous in describing the village’s setting: ‘an opalescence and then a glimpse of vivid green, a notion of order, that vanished as soon as he saw it… green terraces, neatly scalloped and composed about a shining ribbon of river.’ Charlie feels as though he has stepped out of his life: here he simply exists, experiencing a world ‘without name or place or time… only immediacies, moments‘. Here is the enchantment of Harding’s novel: it is a book about war which conveys its horrors not so much in explicit description, but in showing us the thirst that it provokes for peace, kindness, affection, and simplicity.
And then Charlie returns home. Not only does he have to deal with the guilt of surviving something that killed so many of his companions, he has to find a way to bridge the gap between ‘past’ and ‘present’ with his new wife. When he emerges from the jungles, having been feared dead, it’s as though he has to relearn everything about who he is. He puts off writing to his fiancée, Claire, ‘trying to find the voice in which he spoke to her, whatever voice it was he had at home.’ It seems impossible that he can ever recapture the bond he once had with her. But he is British, and it is expected of him, and he must try – even though, in this age without therapy or understanding, it seems so very, very hard. And Claire, when they’re finally ensconced on their farm, tries so hard to do the right thing, but she, like Charlie, is very young and is struggling to adapt to married life: ‘they had found themselves here, full stop, the two of them at once living these fixed adult lives. But that was what one did, nowadays, wasn’t it, now that the war was over and life lay so plain ahead?‘
But nobody tells you how to deal with a husband who can’t open up emotionally, and how to make a house a home when it’s full of emptiness. Claire must learn to be patient and so very, very gentle; even as a fury simmers inside her. Why can’t he share with her what happened? She’s acutely, angrily conscious of the fragility of their world, as precarious as the pyramid of tins that she finds herself examining, with a flair of destructive intent, at the grocer’s. It was all meant to work. He would come home and she would fix him, with her love and support, and all would be well. How can it be that certain doors now cannot be closed, while others, which once seemed the only possible doors, now seem so very hard to open? Meanwhile Charlie, whose long winter walks, and hard days of farm work provide scant relief from his trauma, remains closed, resenting the push for information, unable to neaten up his memories for tidy public consumption:
They pounced on information when it came out, as if they wanted to know it all. But they didn’t really want that. They wanted the story but not the truth. That would be better for them. If they had only that, then they could put it in black and white, and lay it aside and call it history, and go back to their lives, and life could go on much as it had gone on before. The waters would close, and those who had come back, who knew the difficult things, would be only driftwood bobbing about on the surface. With time the water might seep into the wood, and make it sodden and heavy. With enough time it might begin to sink, to the mud at the bottom.
Gorgeous, painful and exquisitely sensitive, this is a novel to save for a time when you can savour it. It is a war story, yes, but it’s one that focuses on the psychological experience of war, and how one copes with the burden of bearing witness. It’s also a story about the folly of drawing lines on maps, whether those are borders to be defended in war, or the outlines of an empire created by distant officials who have never set foot in the lands they’re dividing up. It’s a story of love, loss and hope that never places blame, written with an incredibly light touch. Harding has written a series of novels in which she deals with similar themes of memory and trauma, no doubt all written with the same haunting lyrical beauty. Three of those books, at the present time, are linked to the Ashe family; Land of the Living is the second. I don’t think I’ve missed out by not having read The Gun Room, the first in the sequence, as events in that novel actually postdate Charlie’s experiences in Burma; but it is important to read Land of the Living before moving on to Harvest, which reacquaints us with the Ashe family and their farm some years later.
Highly recommended, as much for its glorious pen-pictures of the Burmese jungle as for its evocative story. Read it; give yourself up to Harding’s perfectly-poised writing; and let yourself be lost.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review