Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, Bodies of men, is a brave book – and not because it’s a World War 2 story about love between two soldiers at at time when such relationships were taboo, though there is that. No, I mean, because it’s a World War 2 story that was inspired by Featherstone’s three-month writer-in-residence stint at the Australian Defence Force Academy, in 2013. That’s not particularly brave, you are probably thinking, but wait, there’s more. What’s brave is that this novel, this story inspired by that residency, is about some darker sides of war – it’s about deserters, and violence from your own side, for a start … It’s certainly not about heroics, or, to be accurate, not the sort of heroics you’d expect. Courage, it shows, comes in many forms.
Here is what self-described pacifist Featherstone wrote in his blog two months into his residency:
I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’ … Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person? But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).
Those men who could do no wrong. Except I don’t believe that for a second.
So, what did Featherstone actually write? It’s the story of two Australian soldiers from Sydney. William is from a conservative, well-to-do North Shore Sydney family, with a Member of Parliament father, while James comes from a poorer working class family, with a widowed mother who runs a shop but who’s also a socialist, a pacifist, and committed to helping homeless people. The boys had met and spent a few times together in their youth, but had lost touch for some years – until they find themselves in Egypt in 1941.
The novel opens with a reconnaissance that turns into an ambush. At an important moment, William, just off the boat, prevaricates, but James, there with a different military section, takes the initiative, and saves the day. The men vaguely recognise each other – “The officer”, thinks James, “does look familiar … but no it can’t be” – but have no opportunity to follow up, each returning immediately to their sections. From here the narrative, told third person from the alternating perspectives of William and James, follows the two men on their different paths. William, soon to be a lieutenant, is sent to manage a training camp in the desert. Believing he needs to redeem himself from that first experience of action, he sees this as an opportunity. He excels as a leader of men, finding the right balance between toughness and friendliness, but is dogged by his cold father’s voice, and worries about his ability to be the man his father expects. However, his mind is on that young man he glimpsed. Meanwhile, James goes AWOL on a military motorbike, which he crashes. Luckily, a family takes him in, a family which has its own tricky background and secrets, but James is just the right person to not rock their boat, so a warm relationship develops.
It’s not long before William works out a way of tracking James down. The story is told chronologically, but with frequent flashbacks which fill in that boyhood friendship. It was short, but intense. Both felt it, but William, in particular, struggled to understand it. It is therefore James, who, upon their renewed acquaintance, takes the lead – and the novel becomes, in part, a love story. Featherstone finds the right balance, here, conveying their tenderness and warmth, without sentimentality. We are never allowed to forget that this is war-time, and that both William and James are taking serious risks in their desire to be together.
However, this is not simply a boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-finds-boy again story. As mentioned above, Featherstone’s goal was to explore what it means to be a good man, against the backdrop of war. We do see some action, besides that opening scene, and there is an over-riding sense that something sinister could happen at any moment, but the main theme concerns men and their reactions to their circumstances – soldiers, men in hiding, men displaced, men in resistance. Each of these men provides the reader with a perspective on how men might choose to be. Courage and risk-taking, passion for a cause, recklessness, fear, commitment to helping others, tenderness and kindness – all of these come into play as the story progresses. And, as in all good novels, there are no simple answers. A love story this might be, but a genre romance or war-story it’s not.
How does Featherstone achieve this? Well, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint these things, isn’t it? In a later post on his blog, Featherstone says that he wrote 38 drafts. You can tell this, and yet you can’t tell. You can tell, because you can feel the craft in the book. You can’t tell, because it also feels organic, not overworked. There’s skill in that. This skill includes the characterisation. William and James are sensitively fleshed out, well individuated, and grow through their experiences. But there are other characters too, including two strong women characters. James’ grounded, supportive mother is one, and open-minded Yetta, the woman who cares for James after his accident is another. It is she who articulates some of the novel’s main messages, including:
‘People must care for people. It’s not more complicated than that.’
There’s skill also in the narrative structure. The novel has a lightly episodic touch, with little breaks marked on the paper between “scenes”, but the story nonetheless flows. These breaks simply provide a way for the narrative to be progressed without unnecessary explication.
And, of course, there’s the writing. It’s spare, and yet perfectly evocative – of life at William’s desert camp, of the nervous busy-ness of war-time Alexandria where wells of quietness can also be found, and of William and James’ love. Here’s an example showing the edgy sort of tone Featherstone creates:
But now, something new: he was – he and James both were – sliding into the back seat of a car. They were being driven along one of Alexandria’s palm-lined boulevards; before long they were surrounded by blackness. William wound down his window and was about to yell, BUGGER THE WAR! – the night was getting away from him – but he managed to drag the words back down to where they belonged, in the pit of his gut.
Bodies of men, then, is a war novel that questions war. But, it is told with a generous touch that doesn’t undermine or betray those who choose to go. It’s a page-turner, underpinned by a fundamental understanding of humanity. It’s a very good read.
Bodies of men
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019