Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison

review by Maryom

A man is found, lying in the blazing heat of the North African desert, left for dead by the side of his wrecked motorbike. He has no recollection of who he is or how he came to be there. Stripped of his possessions and anything that might identify him, the only thing he's left with is a postbag of letters to which he clings as if his life depended on it. Eventually rescue comes in the form of a band of deserters trying to hide out from the war in the vastness of the desert. The War raging round them won't leave the group alone and they have to move on, taking the letter bearer with them. Slowly recovering, the letter bearer starts to piece together his identity from the disjointed bits and pieces he can remember and the letters in his bag.

Set in the North African desert in 1942, part English Patient, part Ice Cold in Alex, The Letter Bearer is a war novel with a difference - its subject matter is not glorious or foolhardy acts of bravery, not outwitting the enemy through cunning and guile, not even the comradeship to be found under fire but the fortunes of a small group who have chosen for various reasons to absent themselves from fighting; in order words, deserters. It starts with a man who is a blank page; he has no memories to shape his opinions of these men so takes them as he finds them and judges them on their actions.
 It's both a gripping page-turning story and a thought-provoking read that will make you question your ideas about bravery and cowardice. Any 'thinking' war story, as opposed to plain glorification of battle, provokes a reaction of 'what would I have done under such circumstances' - this certainly does.
 It's full of excellent atmospheric depiction of the desert - that third party to the war against which both sides battle; it's eerie emptiness combined with the possibility that the enemy - or, possibly worse, 'friends' lurk behind the nearest sand dune.

If I had to pick a fault, it would be that at times the prose is a little too 'wordy', that at times the author chose an obscure word when a perfectly everyday one would have conveyed the same meaning.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult literary fiction, WW2

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