I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic. I stepped across the border out of Indiana into Ohio. Twenty dollars, two salt-pork sandwiches, and I took jerky, biscuits, six old apples, fresh underthings, and a blanket too. There was a heat in the air so I walked in my shirtsleeves with my hat pulled low.
So begins the story of the transformation of Constance Thompson, wife and farmer, into Gallant Ash, fearless soldier and folk legend of the American Civil War. Hers is a story of love and loss, deceit and duty, and the way in which violence can be used as a defence against unbearable pain that, in the end, brings its own trauma. It’s also the story of how women are airbrushed out of history.
Since publishing my first novel, I’ve become more adept at summarising what it’s about, but pitch has never been my forte. We’re advised, especially when first seeking an agent or publisher, to develop an elevator pitch, but Laird Hunt would be able to summarise this novel, if he had to, in less than the time it takes to travel from one floor to the next.
A novel take on the familiar
Of course, a simple premise is of little benefit unless it is intriguing, and what better way to do this than to examine a familiar topic from an unusual angle? Wikipedia lists seventy-one pages on the American Civil War novel and, while I don’t know whether this is the first featuring a female soldier, it’s a perspective that feels fresh to me.
An engaging voice
An intriguing topic that’s easy to summarise isn’t enough to guarantee an appealing novel; after all, the most tedious subject can be enlivened by a skilled writer. Narrative voice is a slippery construct, hard to define but easy to identify in either its presence or its absence. As I hope is clear from the quote above, the voice of Constance/Ash is beguiling from the first page.
A simple premise need not imply a simple story and, in this regard Neverhome does not disappoint. While I appreciated the twist and turns in our heroine’s fates, from one of the bravest of the brave to brutal killer, wounded combatant to runaway, I was particularly impressed by her psychological development. Constance/Ash is able to hide her sadness as much from herself as from the reader in the adventure of the war. But she misses her gentle Bartholomew, and the horrors of the battlefield, and especially the cruelties of the asylum in which she is incarcerated, reconnect her with losses from the past, taking her almost to breaking point.
While the gradual uncovering of her backstory might provide enough for a psychological case study, this is extremely subtly done, with the writer trusting the reader to know how her past losses will have affected her, without layering it on thickly.
It’s often the fine detail that brings a fictional character to life. One of the things I admired in Neverhome was, not just that Constance had to learn to walk as a man, but she had to become acclimatised to the unfamiliar sensation of wearing trousers.
However it’s also in the detail where I find my one reservation about Neverhome. Blame it on my interest in gender-neutral toilets, but I was puzzled as to how, living in close proximity to the other soldiers, our heroine got away with urinating the women’s way, especially when her need to “look for bush” after she had “swallowed up some swamp water” (p23) and suchlike, was addressed.
A satisfying ending
The novel ends, as one might expect, with Constance returning home. But the exact form that homecoming takes was one I had not anticipated. Of course, I can’t tell you what happens, but it seems to me that that mixture of expected and unexpected is what makes for a satisfying ending.
Thanks to Chatto & Windus for my review copy. For a couple of other novels about women taking on men’s roles and clothes, see my post Girl-to-boy traditions. For dissection of a novel as a learning exercise using slightly different headings, see Instructions for a novel. And do tell me what you think. Are these the components of a good novel?