It must take some feat of imagination and a great deal of research for a young writer today to capture the heat and horror of the battles in World War Two. Research and a lot of talking to the veterans, fewer and fewer, who were actually there.
One such novelist, there are others, is Adam Foulds. Noticed some years ago as a promising writer by Granta, Foulds has fulfilled that promise in spades. Long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for his perceptive novel, The Quickening Maze about John Clare and Tennyson’s brother Septimus, both incarcerated in High Beeches Lunatic Asylum in Epping Forest, Adam Foulds explored the nature of the disturbed mind against the background of mellow fruitfulness, quiet forest and nurturing nature.
We begin in Sicily in 1926, a bit of background knowledge that we will need later. Here we meet two characters who will play a big part in the novel. Angilù Cassani and Cirò Albanese. Angilù is a shepherd boy, Albanese is a Sicilian fixer who, the local witch tells his wife Luisa: “will be put in his coffin twice. I know this for sure. The first time he will not be dead. He will climb out of that coffin alive.” Unfortunately for Luisa, she neither understood, nor acted upon that knowledge.
Bearing in mind that the British forces were fighting in Africa long before Operation Torch, this novel really joins the battle at about the point in 1942 when the Eighth Army landed in Morocco
From Sicily in 1926, we leap to England, 1942 and the novel proper begins. Will Walker, assigned to Field Security Services is on home leave. Our next protagonist, Ray Marfione, is with the Americans going into North Africa, and we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of him and his troop.
As first the American troops and then the following British Security Forces enter North Africa. We experience the blind horror of what it is like for infantry soldiers to follow the tanks fighting across the desert; death raining from above and from across the endless sand, the running, the shouting, the screaming and the dying.
Then the British Security Force following on and mopping up the mess. On and on and then finally into Sicily.
To “assist” with the invasion of Sicily the Americans, in their peculiar wisdom, have commandeered the help of some pretty unpleasant characters, most of whom they found in American gaols, whose native land is Sicily; released to help in the war effort on the dubious basis that they will understand the territory and the natives. Furthermore they have kept back all the American soldiers who have Italian names for the same slightly foxed reasons.
The results, predictable as they are with hindsight, were not pretty. There was a resulting flood of accusations, counter-accusations, rank murder and mayhem and actually a re-imported industry of bootlegging, drug running and Mafioso-style blood-letting.
No one trusted anyone else, with good reason and a good deal of misunderstanding resulted.
This novel is a tour de force.