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Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men (#BookReview)

June 7, 2019

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel 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.

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of men
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019
324pp.
ISBN: 9780733640704

 

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2019 3:30 pm

    From your review I sense that this is quite an important book, exploring masculinity (such a topical and fraught subject today) through the lens of a war from last century.

    • June 7, 2019 4:34 pm

      Thanks Denise. I don’t like using the word “important” really, but you can! It certainly makes a thoughtful contribution that gets beyond the adventure/heroism notions of war, but without histrionics.

  2. June 7, 2019 4:12 pm

    Well, well, this review just shows me how deceptive publicity blurbs can be. I’ll copy it to here if you don’t mind, just to show you how I reacted against this book and thought I would never want to read it:
    “Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate.
    William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers.
    Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined”.
    This screed with its war story scenario and its “secrets”. “risking it all” and “dangerous territory” gives no hint of any of what you’ve written about. I feel as if I ought to apologise to the author for dismissing his book out of hand, but I think it’s really not my fault!

    • June 7, 2019 4:49 pm

      Yes, I saw that too Lisa. It’s on the back cover! It’s a hard book to encapsulate in a blurb, and unfortunately these blurbs tend to focus on plot and drama, and not on the nuances of what is going on inside, and this book is, really, more about the inside. I must say that I tend not to read them, and when I do I take them with a grain of salt. Blurb writers love to talk about “secrets” and “risking it all” etc etc, which often skew the overall meaning of a book, don’t you think?

      I guess I have read a few of Nigel Featherstone’s books now, and I know that he’s not going to write a genre war adventure. I also subscribe to his blog, so I read his blog posts when he was doing the residency, and knew that the whole war scenario is not a natural fit for him.

      Still, I accept that it’s not your fault!!

  3. viggerskarengmailcom permalink
    June 7, 2019 4:19 pm

    Lovely review of Nigel’s book Sue. I really enjoyed both the book and your review. A gentle and tender, and yet evocative read.

  4. June 7, 2019 11:18 pm

    Great review. The book sounds fantastic. Some of the greatest war stories out there have questioned war. In the right hands these stories can still be very effective and important. The characters and relationship sound so well done here.

    • June 7, 2019 11:47 pm

      Thanks Brian. I agree about the great war stories (versus the genre books that really are primarily about adventure and heroes.)

  5. June 7, 2019 11:28 pm

    Great review Sue! I’ve read it but it’s a bit further down my backlog. Loved reading your take on it!

    • June 7, 2019 11:46 pm

      Thanks Angharad. I look forward to seeing your take! I can’t cope with a reviewing backlog. I usually write them up within a day or two of finishing. A couple of weeks ago I got two books behind and I was feeling really stressed! My little brain can’t cope with keeping it all in my head!

      • June 7, 2019 11:49 pm

        Haha I won’t disclose how many books behind I am in that case! I keep getting distracted with other projects! Hopefully over the long weekend I can chip away at my list

  6. June 8, 2019 5:46 am

    If you would only dedicate yourself to reviewing EVERY BOOK, ST, it would make all our lives so much easier. And we wouldn’t have to read blurbs, ever !

    • June 8, 2019 8:58 am

      Haha M-R. I think I would need to develop the two-paragraph review for people to want to read them, but as you know I’m not good at being terse.

  7. Sara Dowse permalink
    June 8, 2019 10:56 am

    Fortunately for me I almost never read a blurb, so I was open to what this book was by following the author – trust the teller, is what the Tongans say – and wasn’t for a moment let down. On the other hand, I know Nigel, so could never imagine him writing anything less than a serious book. I think it is important as well as beautifully done, and am hoping it does as well as it deserves. Thanks too for another thoughtful review, WG, exhibiting your constant attempt to dive under the surface of books, not only the hype surrounding them.

    • June 8, 2019 3:12 pm

      Thanks Sara! I’m so glad I’m not the only one who ignores blurbs. Trust the teller. I like that. But as you go on to say, it helps knowing a bit about the teller! I tend to put together what I know about the teller, what I know about the publisher, sometimes what the style of the cover implies, and any vibes I hear (given I avoid reading reviews of books I plan to read myself.)

      And thanks so much Sara for your ongoing support of my reviewing style. I don’t think it’s for everyone, and I do frequently get anxious about my attempts, but it’s what interests me.

  8. buriedinprint permalink
    June 11, 2019 6:35 am

    What an interesting discussion here, about the ways in which we/others approach a text based on publicity materials (or, don’t). I also really appreciate the observation you’ve made about how hard he must have worked to make his writing seem effortless. What a feat that is! Especially with more than three dozen drafts behind him: phew!

    • June 11, 2019 8:08 am

      Thanks, Buried. Glad you like the discussion as well as the post. I guess that’s what good writers do, isn’t it? Hone and hone and hone

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