Wednesday, April 30, 2014

War Challenge #6

I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

The Soldier’s Song – Alan Monaghan, 0330505793

This WWI novel chronicles the experience of Irishman Stephen Ryan. Brilliant enough to have won a scholarship in mathematics to Trinity College in Dublin, he still feels awkward about his working-class origins and ability to fit in with students whose families possess more wealth and status. He is too tongue-tied to get closer to fellow math-whiz Lillian Bryce, austere  but attractive in her own fashion like many intelligent women are.

When the war breaks out and with only a year to go before he is conferred, he volunteers to fight for the King’s Army. This exacerbates his already strained relationship with his younger brother Joe. Joe’s activities with republican Irish Citizen Army – a group opposing home rule - distract him from contributing to the care of their crippled widowed father.

At Gallipoli, Stephen becomes a hero due this sharpshooting and leadership skills. On R&R back in Dublin, he takes part in the Easter 1916 Rising on the opposite side of his brother. This was a sadly common division in Irish families at the time. Though he is interned, Joe is not among the executed thanks to the timely intervention of Lillian’s sister, a nurse.

Stephen is awarded a Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Messines in June, 1917. The description of the process of mining in order to plant mines is a cut above the other battle action scenes. He goes through a hellish experience in the mud at Ypres, tearing up his knee and barely making it back to his own lines. But he is struck dumb and has to see the psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers, whose most famous patient was Siegfried Sasson and who also appears in Pat Barker’s novel The Ghost Road. Treating Stephen with early cognitive-behavioral therapy, Rivers mercifully does not resort to the usual treatments of shell shock such as shaming, use of electric shock, solitary confinement and withholding food.

Stephen finishes his war battered physically and mentally. Author Monaghan is at his strongest at handling  Stephen’s PTSD terrors. Back then people didn’t know much about battle fatigue. They didn’t realize PTSD was a condition. In this novel, it just gets a grip on a returning soldier, seemingly out of the blue. Not knowing its origins, there was no knowing how long it would last or how severe symptoms would be. Monaghan captures vividly this pained frantic unawareness.

The matter of fact writing is clear and readable. The supporting characters of Lillian and his best friend Billy are refreshing. The conclusion is open-ended, making us sure sequels were in the works. Knowing the background of the battles and the Easter Rising aids enjoyment but is not required. I’d recommend this novel, wide-ranging in setting and three year’s  time, to anybody interested in WWI stories.

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