Theory of War – When faith will serve as well as anything

This is my review of Theory Of War by Joan Brady.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, a penniless soldier sells a small boy called Jonathan, who may or may not be his own son, to Kansas farmer, Alvah Stoke, in search of some cheap and malleable labour. The irony is that, just after America has been torn apart in the cause of abolishing black slavery, a white boy is effectively made a slave, as it appears was actually the case for the author’s own grandfather whose life inspired this novel.

Deprived of love and affection, not merely education but even decent living conditions and food, Jonathan is soon the butt of bullying from Alvah’s son George, jealous of his intelligence, practical ingenuity, good looks and natural grace. So he is inexorably transformed from a sweet, inquisitive chatterbox into a wary and embittered youth, eventually able to make his escape on one of the new steam trains which capture his imagination. Despite his ability not merely to survive but to succeed against the odds, Jonathan’s psyche is poisoned by his very understandable fury over the years of abuse, and the desire for revenge focussed on George. Moving between scenes from Jonathan’s life to that of his granddaughter as she pieces together his story from his coded diary and the ramblings of his son, alcoholic doctor Atlas, Joan Brady shows how the destructive effects of slavery can blight a family for three generations.

This original, quirky novel drips with cynicism and venom (which happens to be the title of another of Brady’s novels) and includes some at times gratuitously unpleasant scenes, one of which almost caused me to give up. Yet despite this, and the extreme mental or physical ills which seem to beset many of the main characters, this book is a page turner. Apart from being “a good yarn”, with dazzling verbal pyrotechnics and some telling observations, it brings alive a sense of the landscape and pioneering spirit of the States, as railroads are forged west to California, new towns are formed, only to die in a few years, as in the brilliant descriptions of the town of Mogul, “ferried out in the desert” for the purpose of mining stignite. “Mogul was growing up with America, no sewers, no trees, no street lights, no running water: a full-blown boom town geared to the quick sale of everything, alive or dead, worldly or divine. Walls of saloon and Methodist chapel alike advertised whiskey, shaving cream, dried beef and – without so much as a change of paint colour or script style – God Himself and the virtues of cleanliness” and so on for page after page of wry, sparkling prose. Despite the perhaps over-laboured attempt to apply theories of warfare to Jonathan’s battle with George, regardless of the recurring message that life has no meaning, much as we may wish that it did, that “truth’s a convention, a fashion: it changes every year”, being alive is miraculous and wonderful.

It is a pity that this deservedly award-winning novelist, whose own life seems quite intriguing, has not written more and is not better known in this country.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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