I don't read a lot of war fiction. I don't have anything in particular against it, it just doesn't call to me the way young adult apocalyptic dystopias or adult mysteries do. I have read The Wars by Timothy Findley. While this book is not quite The Wars, considering that this is a first novel, I was fairly impressed. I like that the protagonist, Captain Jim McFarlane, is a sort of classic everyman; he is not a hero, not without flaws - in fact, he's pretty up front about the fact that he looks on the war as an opportunity to shake the boredom of his job and gain some status in his family. His relationship with his wife isn't a Grand Passion, she isn't a perfect ideal of a woman, and he goes to war over her objections. This makes the book read more like a legitimate exploration of a soldier's experience than a Hollywood rendering.
That said, A Beckoning War headed Kirkus Review's list of 12 Most Cinematic Indie Books of 2014 (so far). Indeed, one of the first things I noticed was the almost palpable rhythm of the book, the contrast between the quiet passages detailing McFarlane's increasingly tormented musings and the sections vividly describing the frenzied bedlam of battle. There is ample demonstration of the fact that war is never one thing - there is boredom, and terror, and extreme bodily discomfort, and camaraderie and humour, and, with McFarlane, the questioning of whether he will emerge from this experience in any way intact.
The humour emerges in McFarlane's interactions with his superior officers: at one point, McFarlane offers to share his whiskey with Major Gordon, the battalion's second in command, who has just rather frostily instructed McFarlane to stop complaining about being understaffed and overstretched. Gordon, a Calvinist teetotaller, "says, with a trace of disdain, 'I'd sooner take one in the arm'. 'I've already done that,' retorts Jim, feeling the knotted dent of his healed arm wound from the Liri Valley battle, 'and I'll tell you, I prefer booze, thank you very much'". There is also an enjoyably raucous dinnertime conversation that includes a play on words merging "veni, vidi, vici" with V.D. This contrasts sharply with a chilling moment where McFarlane has an extended conversation over breakfast with three friends, then says something to a confused Lieutenant and realizes he's been talking with two dead men and one who's been invalided out.
|Here he is rocking some writerly facial hair|
There were times when I read a passage and thought, damn, Murphy's developed some writing chops: "the rains having extinguished the last of the fires of the great battle and left in their wake a match-stink of old burning, the scorched and bitter essence of incendiary decay"; "A slight wave of dizziness washes over him, and the wound in his arm throbs in cutaneous remembrance.” There were other times (I feel I can be honest about this, because he's a published author, and he used to harass me when I was sleeping hungover on his living-room couch in the morning) when I thought, "NO, MATTHEW, NO". For instance, "“He can hear her voice through the medium of her pen, through tonal vibrations of squiggles of ink”. Squiggles of ink do not vibrate tonally, Matt, not with all the poetic license in the world. And this: “From his pocket he produced a packet of Wrigley’s gum, unwrapping the foil covering of a piece, unleashing a cool wintry zing of peppermint as he did so, and popped the pliable rectangular stick of gum into his mouth.” Unless he uses the gum to save the world, MacGyver-like, within the next few pages, this reads more like a product placement than a descriptive detail. But I quibble.
Truthfully, I am pleased, admiring and a tiny bit envious of my friend's little brother's accomplishment. Way to go, Matt.