WW1 saga is strong stuff

2009-10-21 00:00


The Harrowing

Robert Dinsdale

Faber & Faber

LIKE it or loathe it, Dinsdale’s novel is unlikely to leave anybody feeling indifferent. It brims with raw power, darkly lurid images, a degree of surrealism, and resonant biblical and mythological elements. It is also turgid, heavy-handed and overwrought (in various senses).

The story, set in 1916, concerns two Yorkshire brothers William and Samuel (the Cain-and-Abel motif being strong throughout). Samuel, the younger, has always lived under the shadow of his too-admirable brother; and one day his resentment explodes in an unpremeditated act of violence which nearly kills William.

While William is in a temporary coma in hospital, Samuel is packed off by his parents to the trenches of the Western Front, as punishment and to get rid of the embarrassment to the family.

When William recovers (to a degree, although with a wound in his head that is almost metaphysical), he decides to head for Flanders himself — not to seek revenge but to find and bring back his still-beloved younger brother to safety.

There, in the hellish inferno of trench warfare and of landscapes rendered wastelands by the war, William embarks on what is a form of the ancient quest myth, in the course of which the author explores the nature of sibling rivalry and loyalty, and of violence and (occasionally) compassion, all against the backdrop of one of the greatest outbreaks in history of senseless carnage among humans.

The big battle scene which forms roughly the centrepiece of the novel is depicted in monstrous, almost Miltonic, colours and unforgettable images (such as the horse which charges screaming out of the chaos at Samuel only to be ripped open by a projectile).

This is strong stuff. But Dinsdale could do with at least some restraint in his style: men in his dialogues never “speak” — they “snarl”, “growl”, “snipe”, “hiss” (frequently) or “sneer”; people in states of emotion always “wrench” themselves (“Samuel raged, his face wrenched rigid”). Or perhaps Dinsdale needed a pushier editor. His prose churns and, often, clogs with a teeth-grinding intensity that borders on the absurd.

But The Harrowing, with its overtones of a descent into hell coupled with probing psychology, is quite difficult to put down.

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