Book Review: Walking Wounded

By Sheila Llewellyn

waling wounded

“Daniel stared at the white-ish brain matter clinging to the haft and clogging up the eye of the needle. Can it really be as easy as that – to scrape out someone’s depression, their melancholy, their anxiety? To scrape out someone’s emotions?”

So assured is Sheila Llewellyn’s writing, one would never guess Walking Wounded was her first novel. Her portrayal of the emotional devastation caused by armed conflict, and the often unintentional misery brought about by misguided attempts to repair the damage is staggeringly accomplished.

Set in Birmingham’s once highly influential Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, it is tempting to conclude we are entering Pat Barker terrain – a writer well known for focusing on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Like Barker, the author has an uncanny ability to evoke the appalling mental anguish induced by war, she is seemingly able to fathom the suppressed male subconscious, and many of her characters are based on historic figures – but there the similarities end.

Inspired by her own experience of treating victims of PTSD in Northern Ireland, the author’s narrative switches back and forth between the fictitious characters: psychiatrist Daniel Carter and Corporal David Reece. It is 1947 and both doctor and patient have been profoundly damaged by their ordeals, but they also have the subliminal power to heal one another.

From the morale-destroying Burma Campaign to life in the old industrial city of Manchester (just before and immediately after the Second World War), Llewellyn’s historical and topographical research is scrupulous yet subtle. Speaking personally, as the daughter of a Mancunian who lived through the period described in this novel, I find her descriptions of the Manchester Blitz, and of The Manchester Guardian’s candid reporting of the Nazi atrocities, particularly fascinating

Walking Wounded is a brilliantly crafted, often harrowing, powerfully intense piece of work, which deserves to win awards. I hope very much that Sheila Llewellyn plans to write a second novel.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for gifting an advance copy of this title.

Book Review: A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary 1939–1940

by Iris Origo

When a complimentary copy of this book arrived in the mail from Pushkin Press, I immediately noticed that the introduction had been written by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War – a brilliant, multi award winning biography of the notorious Italian poet and playwright. This certainly boded well in my mind for Iris Origo’s diary, which covers the months leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War.

English born Iris came from a privileged background and lived in Italy for most of her life, marrying the illegitimate son of Marchese Clemente Origo in 1924. Together they purchased a 7,000 acre estate in Tuscany and brought prosperity to a poverty stricken region. During the war she sheltered innumerable refugees and helped Allied prisoners escape from the fascist regime. She was appointed DBE in 1976.

Origo was already known to me as being one of the finest diarists of the twentieth century for her moving and compassionate journal detailing Italy’s disastrous involvement in the same conflict, War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944, first published in 1947. Aware that her book had been a critical success, I had coincidentally just been reading extracts from it in Irene and Alan Taylor’s The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists.

Published this month for the first time ever, A Chill in the Air details the extraordinary events to which she was witness during a most peculiar period in Italy’s history. She writes next to nothing about herself or her personal life but records the discussions she had with, among others, peasants, farm workers, friends, members of the aristocracy and her godfather, William Philips, the US Ambassador in Rome – and it is plain to see the incredulity of the ordinary people as Mussolini dragged them to war.

Unable to leave Italy for the duration of the war, Origo was a resident alien, but she was also an astute observer with an excellent understanding of Italian politics, and put her time to good use. However, while her more famous diary vividly records a rural farming community surviving the horrors of conflict, this is a very different document, which is likely to appeal to historians and those with an academic interest in the period rather than the general reader. It does, nevertheless, add to her fascinating oeuvre and is worth perusing in tandem with War in Val d’Orcia.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for  gifting a copy of this title.

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

In late 1942, when Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov passed through the most notorious gates in modern history, he was a healthy, bright, outgoing young man with a penchant for the company of women. To reach his destination he had travelled for two days on an overcrowded cattle train from Prague without access to food, water or toilets. From this point on he became Prisoner Number 32407 at Auschwitz II–Birkenau, and having survived the initial selection and a serious bout of typhus, he was put to work as camp tattooist.

He had been manager of a fashionable department store in Bratislava when the Slovak Government decreed that every Jewish family living in his home town of Krompachy should send one child over the age of eighteen to work for the Germans. He was multilingual, quick to learn and adored his mother, so offered himself up for transportation in the hope of protecting his family.

Lale did what had to be done to survive, but he also boosted morale and saved inestimable lives by appropriating food and medical supplies from under the noses of the SS Death’s Head Units. He was naturally empathetic, well liked by his fellow prisoners and held out to the end with his dignity and integrity unblemished. More amazingly, perhaps, is that he developed a deep and enduring love for a women he had branded upon entering the camp.

When the writer Heather Morris met him in 2003 he was an elderly businessman living in Australia. They became unlikely friends and she saw that he “might just have a story worth telling”. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the remarkable, percipient, utterly unforgettable novel she based on Lale’s experiences as camp tätowierer.

Although a natural optimist with a tremendous zest for life, Lale feared history might remember him as a Nazi collaborator, which is why he agreed to tell his story. He died on 31st October 2006, aged 90, believing to the end that, “If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.”

Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre for supplying an advance copy of this title for review.

Book Review: Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

It is difficult to know how to define Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Costa Book Award winning novel. It is part Historical Fiction because of its authentic depiction of English life both during and between the World Wars, however, since the protagonist is repeatedly reincarnated into the same life, it could more precisely be placed in the Sci-fi sub genre category of Time Travel.

It all begins (and keeps beginning) on 11th February 1910, during a particularly heavy snow storm, but the end date varies according to what at first appear to be quite minor decisions on the part of Ursula – the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd – which only too often lead to devastating, life-changing and not infrequently tragic consequences for herself and those around her.

This is a book about second chances and what-ifs. It also reveals hidden secrets, explores love in its myriad forms and displays sheer British pluckiness in the face of nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. All this is borne with understated humour and stiff upper lip by the Todd family as they move through varying versions of the same life.

Kate Atkinson’s ingenious novel shows us how small changes of behaviour can have seismic repercussions throughout history. She also left me wondering how some of the terrible events of the 20th century might have been avoided.

Incidentally, this is the first in a duology about the Todd family, the second being A God in Ruins (2015).