A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier: “a tale of petit point”

My mother used to speak of her “maiden aunts” who were never able to marry because of the dearth of single men after the First World War. Violet Speedwell is such a “surplus woman”, her loneliness compounded by poverty. To gain independence from her widowed mother, embittered by the loss of her elder son, and constantly carping, Violet moves to nearby Salisbury, where after paying rent, her wages are insufficient to buy a hot meal every day and replace outworn clothes. She finds distraction in the unlikely company of broderers, women who have volunteered to decorate colourful kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral, and in the friendship of Arthur, a man old enough to be her father, with a passion for bell ringing, but also a wife who is yet another woman traumatised by her son’s death on a French battlefield.

Plots are often padded out with some specialism which readers are likely to know little about, but find interesting. In this case, the themes are embroidery and bell ringing, both of which the author has thoroughly researched. The former has the ring of truth, being based on the actual project undertaken in the 1930s, under the direction of the real-life Louise Pesel, who appears in the novel, using her striking designs for scenes from English history.

With painstaking attention to detail, Tracy Chevalier recreates the staid, dull, conventional world of the 1930s, as it appears to us now, bringing it alive with moments of poignancy and wry humour. It is a world where women are not supposed to have careers, nor hike round the countryside on their own, and their mere presence, if alone, seems to make others uncomfortable. If they fail to marry, they are expected to be carers when the need arises. Some may say that this state of affairs has far from disappeared.

This is an easy read which could promote discussion in a book group, but I found it rather dull, with the research too often shoehorned clunkily into wooden descriptions and stilted dialogues, stereotyped characters, and a somewhat thin plot relying on too many coincidences and contrived situations. I was also unconvinced that a woman like Violet would in the past have gone to bars to meet “sherry men” with whom to have brief sexual encounters, although I could understand why the tedium of living with her mother might drive her to drink.

My reservations may be unfair, since this novel seems to have been generally well-received.

“The Return of the Native”: flawed diamond by Thomas Hardy

From his opening sentence, Thomas Hardy portrays the hypnotic power of the bleakly beautiful, unchanging Egdon heath which influences so strongly the lives of those born and raised there, so that even the talented Clym Yeobright who has become a man of the world in Paris, is drawn back to it magnetically, with the desire to live a simpler life of greater social value. Outsiders forced to live on the heath feel more oppressed by it, like the capricious Eustacia Vye who would like nothing better than to be transported to Paris.

The heath forms the backdrop to the relations between the six main characters which, as we have come to expect from Hardy, prove fateful owing to the conflict between their natural inclinations, differing ambitions and the rigid social conventions which constrain the women in particular. A cast of local rustics provide the comedy in a structure which keeps closely to the classical framework of unity of time and place: events take place over the course of a single year, between two bonfire nights, and the drama never strays beyond the boundaries of Egdon Heath.

Having read all Hardy’s other “major” novels, I was at first disappointed by the tedium of overlong, wordy, initially leaden descriptions, punctuated by the disruption of pompous literary references of often doubtful relevance which obliged me to keep flipping to the notes at the back. Eventually, I was worn down or reeled into submission. Undeniably, many passages expanding in minute detail on the changing weather, the vegetation, the past history and present activities on the heath are brilliant, original and memorable. For instance, in Chapter VI, “The Figure against the Sky”, Hardy describes how the wind creates a kind of music with “the general ricochet….over pits and prominences” combined with “the baritone buzz of a holly tree” and “a worn whisper, dry and papery” from “the mummified heath-bells of the past summer, originally tender and purple, now washed colourless by Michaelmas rains, and dried to the dead skins by October suns”. And so on – Hardy was of course also a poet.

Hardy has a gift for conveying complex emotions and trains of thought in minute detail, arousing sympathy for all except perhaps the philanderer Wildeve. Bearing in mind how our assessment of the characters is likely to be very different from what even Hardy may have intended, writing a hundred and fifty years ago, he gives us the material to make up our own minds. Eustacia may seem to us an object of sympathy since she is not directed to any solid purpose in life – by default, her beauty leads men astray and she gets the blame for it. Clym may be found wanting in failing to consider enough the impact on others of his well-intentioned actions. Diggory Venn, the reddleman, bizarrely red from head to foot from the ochre he sells to farmers to dye their sheep, often seems meddlesome and manipulative, although Hardy apparently intended him to retain an “isolated and weird character” until obliged by the publisher to use him for a partially happy ending.

The plot is often implausible, relying on overheard conversations and coincidental meetings to feed the accumulation of misunderstandings. Scenes slip into melodrama, particularly the ludicrous final climax. One is left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, but perhaps it mirrors real life when one feels this over the way matters often work out. Despite this, the quality of some of the writing is remarkable, so that certain images and reflections on these imagined lives, linger in the mind.

Required to read this in three days for a book group, I was left stunned by the welter of impressions received in a short space of time. I suspect that to read this slowly, savouring some of the best passages, is the most rewarding approach to this novel, which will take you out of the fast-paced world of sound bites, Twitter tweets, Snapchat and easy instant gratification, in which Eustacia would probably have revelled.

On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne – knowing where to draw the line

“If you want to know how you’ve done in life, tell your eighteen-year-old self in the mirror whether you have disappointed him or lived up to his expectations”.

For much of this novel, narrator Adrian Gyle clearly falls into the former category. After years spent in Hong Kong chasing trivial news stories, he appears cynical, unattached, often too hungover to pursue a lead as he drifts towards the inevitable point when his editor’s patience finally snaps.

It was not always so. In his youth, feeling socially out of place at Cambridge, he made an unlikely friendship with another outsider from a very different background: Jimmy Tang, son of a vastly wealthy Hong Kong business family, who inspired him to share the challenge of translating classical Chinese poetry into English.

Following the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese, life has changed abruptly, as the new authoritarian regime sets about dismantling democracy, sparking increasingly violent street battles as the police crack down on student demonstrators. One of these is Rebecca To, Jimmy Tang’s latest extra-marital lover, whose activities create the threat of reprisals from those in power against both her own wealthy family and his.

So this forms the basis for a topical thriller with a strong sense of place, Lawrence Osborne being a travel writer as well as a novelist. Yet it may disappoint those expecting suspense and action, since the most dramatic incidents tend to occur offstage, fail to materialise or leave the reader uncertain as to whether a particular crime has actually been committed at all. The author seems more interested in the dynamics of a long friendship between two very different men linked by a few common interests and shared memories. His aim is to explore the varied moral positions that individuals or groups take to particular issues and situations.

Having been very impressed by a recent reading of “The Forgiven”, I did not find the descriptions of Hong Kong as striking as those of Morocco, but maybe the latter simply lends itself to this. Perhaps years spent as a “nomad” observing people in different countries accounts for the distance which the author creates between us and his characters, so that one does not care too much about them. This mattered for me in the case of Jimmy Tang and Rebecca To who seem quite thinly developed. The “inverted” nature of this novel results in, for instance, Jimmy’s long-suffering wife and Rebecca’s father appearing more authentic despite being minor characters. The focus on a few exceptionally wealthy, good-looking people, with no opportunity missed to display a knowledge of fine wine gave the serious theme a shallow quality. Admittedly, the dilemma facing influential Hong Kong Chinese who have a lot to lose if they risk dissent needs to be understood.

Displaying the bones of an excellent novel, I was left disappointed when the plot slips away to a bland conclusion.

“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis – Not to be envied!

Reading “Lucky Jim” as a teenager in the 1960s, I laughed out loud over the incident where Jim tries to conceal the holes he has accidentally burned in the sheets and rug of his fearsome hostess, wife of the hen-pecked caricature of an absent-minded professor, his Head of Department, Welch.

Returning to it for a book group more than fifty years later, the novel which was published in 1954, seems quite dated, yet perhaps interesting as a “period piece”. Many readers will be perplexed by telephone operators intervening in three minute trunk calls, and descriptions of university life almost unrecognisable today.

Apart from the fact that he is a northerner teaching at a provincial university in the south of England shortly after the Second World War, we are told little about what has shaped Jim Dixon’s frankly rather odd and unappealing character. So one cannot understand why his chosen subject is Medieval History when he finds it so boring, nor why he is so anxious to avoid having his contract terminated at the end of the year, since he seems to despise the university and many of his colleagues. Having made a huge effort to ingratiate himself with Welch, why does he indulge in a series of mean pranks which can easily be traced back to him, and why can he never resist the temptation to provoke those in a position to do him down? He often seems quite adolescent, wishing to strangle or stab everyone who irritates him, doing an ape imitation in private, or contorting his face into a series of expressions to reflect his mood: his Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, and so on.

He occasionally shows a flash of decency, socialising with the needy academic Margaret, about whom he feels a certain guilt, although he probably keeps going out with her through a kind of inertia. Also, he refrains from telling the one tale which would deprive Welch’s obnoxious son Bernard of Christine, the girlfriend whom Dixon begins to fancy.

The first of many novels, which won Amis a prize and was soon made into a popular film, this has what now seems a very straightforward plot, plodding in minute to the point of tedious detail through the events of a few days. The convoluted sentences peppered with oddly used words often reminded me of a precocious schoolboy experimenting with terms recently culled from the dictionary. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny in the portrayal of Margaret, manipulative and conveniently unattractive. It has been said that Jim was modelled on the author’s friend, the poet Philip Larkin, but Amis appears to have put a good deal of himself into his creation – the “Angry Young Man”, his keen observation of the world fuelled by alcohol into bitter parody.

I may have found less real humour than expected second time round, but there are a few places where brilliant writing combines with comedy, as in the passage at the end when Jim, desperate to reach a railway station in time, finds himself on a country bus held up for every conceivable reason – the kind of situation we have all experienced.

“The Fell” by Sarah Moss: “life to be lived, somehow”

Conceived and written during the first series of Covid lockdowns (assuming there could be more), this novel has the ring of authenticity which may be of interest to future generations, although do those who lived through this period need or wish to be reminded of it?

In a close-knit Peak District community, divorced mother Kate cracks under the prospect of fourteen days quarantine required because she has tested positive. Without telling her teenage son Matt, she grabs a rucksack and takes off over the fells. Those who spent months cooped up in tower blocks may have little sympathy, but perhaps the lure of lovely scenery just beyond the garden wall makes the sense of imprisonment even harder to bear. Kate’s breach of the rules is ironical, since before being furloughed from the local café, she was the only one who challenged customers who failed to wear their masks.

Events are revealed through the viewpoints of four characters: Kate, Matt, elderly well-to-do neighbour Alice, vulnerable owing to her recent cancer, and experienced volunteer rescuer Rob, whose dedication to a role he regards as more worthwhile than anything else has cost him his marriage, and provokes his daughter’s resentment.

There is clearly the potential for a page-turning build-up of tension with an unpredictable outcome. Will Alice, despite all the help Kate has given her, inform the police? Will an accident prevent Kate from returning without being caught out? Will she end up not only injured but liable for a fine she cannot afford to pay? What will be the impact on Matt? How ruthless is the author prepared to be?

The novel is remarkable in that each chapter sustains a stream of consciousness from beginning to end. This tends to seem contrived, particularly when it extends to a raven which becomes the uncomfortable, truth-telling facet of Sarah’s flagging thoughts. It is realistic to portray the mind as focusing on quite mundane or irrelevant details in moments of stress, but they too often make repetitive and tedious reading, serving only to pad the tale out to novel-length.

There are some telling insights into social contact during Covid, such as Alice “having dinner” with her daughter’s family, which means sitting at a computer screen to watch each other eat- grandson Seb “appears briefly, dizzyingly, so close to the camera tht his nose and one eye fill the screen”. However, there is a missed opportunity to convey fully the sense of unreality punctuated with moments of fear during an unexpected pandemic. Unless one ended up in hospital on a ventilator, it was hard to believe most of the time that there really was a need to keep 2 metres apart, let alone sanitise every supermarket item before allowing it into the kitchen. This contrasted with the small hours when the most rational of people would wake convinced they could not breathe properly and were going to die.

I admired “Ghost Wall”, the first novel by Sarah Moss which I came across. It succeeds on all counts: plot, structure, dialogue, character development, description, humour and poignancy mixed with tension and menace. The more recent “The Fell”, even more so than the intervening “Summerwater”, seems more of an overworked series of exercises in creative writing. Knowing Sarah Moss to be a teacher of this subject, I am perhaps looking out too keenly for the techniques she is putting into practice. However, without the injection of more plot, it would have been more powerful and moving if written as a shorter novella, perhaps less abrupt and more “fleshed out” at the end.

“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy – seeing the wood for the trees

In the woodland hamlet of Little Hintock, literally “in the sticks” and so isolated that the inhabitants “deemed window curtains unnecessary”, timber merchant George Melbury is tortured by a dilemma. To prove his worth, he has educated his daughter Grace to be “fit” for a husband in a higher social class, but has also promised her in marriage to Giles Winterborne, a young man in the apple and cider trade, whose father he feels guilty about having wronged in the past. The temptation to break this agreement is too great when Doctor Fitzpiers, recently arrived in the neighbourhood, takes a fancy to Grace, and Giles is too proud and restrained to press his own case. Attractive, and educated with noble ancestry but no money, Fitzpiers proves an inveterate womaniser, so that a degree of tragedy seems inevitable.

On a spectrum of Hardy’s novels, this lies somewhere between the largely lighthearted pastoral romance of “Under the Greenwood Tree” and the bleakness of “Jude the Obscure”. Sad incidents are made bearable by Hardy’s wry observations, sometimes tipping into comic farce, and his subtle insight into complex human behaviour which also helps to make events seem more plausible, relying as they often do on unlikely coincidences. It’s also a model for skilful plotting and development.

Hardy’s accounts of rural life in Victorian England are fascinating: poor Marty South, working for a pittance at night to cut pointed rods for securing thatch, but forced to sell her beautiful hair (her sole asset apart from her unrecognised perceptiveness), to make a wig for the self-absorbed lady of the manor; the annual ritual of the “barking season” where the locals “attack like locusts” to strip the bark from trees for use in tanning; Giles covered in apple-rind and pips as he operates his portable cider press in a hotel yard.

Yet what really sets this novel apart is Hardy’s remarkable portrayal of the woods on which the people depend for a living. His fundamental desire to write poetry flows out in passage after passage of unique, vivid prose, describing the trees in all seasons and weathers, from widely differing viewpoints, all showing how closely Hardy must have observed the world. A description of the woods after a damaging storm: “above stretched an old beech, with vast armpits, and great pocket-holes in its sides where branches had been removed in past times…. Dead branches were scattered about like ichythosauri in a museum”….rotting stumps of trees which “had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums…..moss like little fir trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss”.

The novel may feel dated with the frequently slightly garbled quotations from and allusions to long-forgotten texts. The tyranny of social conventions to which some of the characters submit seems ludicrous to us, and at times even to them as well, invariably when it is too late. Despite this, “The Woodlanders” retains the power to move us, and to feel a connection with a past way of life.

“Nineteen Eighty-four” by George Orwell: renewed relevance

Even those who have not read George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, rated as one of “the hundred best novels”, will recognise some of the “Newspeak” which has been absorbed into our language: “doublethink”, “thoughtcrime”, Big Brother is Watching You, “2+2=5” and the dreaded “Room 101”, to name a few.

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Winston Smith, a member of the “Outer Party” spends his days in a cramped cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, altering newspaper articles and statistics to tally with the latest announcements blaring from the inescapable telescreens and loudspeakers, taking care to post each instruction in a “memory hole” for incineration without trace. The superstate of Oceania is in a continual state of no doubt fictitious war with one of its two counterparts, Eurasia and Eastasia, but keeping track is a mind-bending business: in the middle of a “Hate Week” speech, Eastasia becomes the enemy instead of Eurasia, and Winston has to work frantically to “correct” all the records. Desperate to retain a sense of reality, he wonders what it is worth if it only exists in his own head.

Written during the late 1940s in the aftermath of World War 2, with the Soviet Union under Stalin’s control, it is clear where Orwell obtained many of the ideas for this work. It also seems quite dated in the portrayal of Winston’s shabby material existence very much as it must have been in a period of shortages and rationing. The bleak bombed terraces of London’s East End provide the setting for “the proles”, workers at the bottom of the social heap who are bribed with the promise of wins in a bogus lottery, but are at least spared the constant need to toe the ever-changing Party line.

When the real 1984 dawned, it seemed that technological advances and mass consumption had transformed the world in ways Orwell had been unable to foresee, but in 2022 the novel has regained a more chilling relevance. As I write this, President Putin is trying to conceal from the Russian people the fact that their military forces are in fact destroying rather than protecting Russian cities. Media outlets are being forced to close down since anyone who even mentions the word “invasion” faces fifteen years in gaol. Recently in the US, “fake news” became a common feature of President Trump’s regime, with his spokesperson justifying the use of “alternative facts”. In China, Muslim ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs are imprisoned in “re-education camps”. Even in the UK, the supposed cradle of democracy, one sees too many troubling examples of official attempts to manipulate situations, suppress information and “economise with the truth”, yet not widely challenged. As living standards are put under pressure by the costs of dealing with Covid and rising energy prices, the threat of war may prove a convenient diversion, also serving to discourage the growth of individualism which undermines unquestioning conformity.

The novel may seem a little rushed and underdeveloped at the end, perhaps because Orwell, who was dying of tuberculosis at the time, was racing to finish it. Despite this, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a thought-provoking warning against complacency over the behaviour of our political leaders. Orwell raises the dilemma of the risk that people driven by social idealism may end up creating a system that crushes individual freedom – rather like the excesses of the French Revolution when one comes to think of it…..

“Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope – a master in analysing human nature

Barchester Towers (Vintage Classics) by [Anthony Trollope]

In this early Victorian soap opera, an elderly bishop’s death triggers the drama of Barchester Towers. His ambitious, worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, who has long been the power behind the  bishop’s throne, is anxious to succeed him but an untimely change in government and the move against ritualistic, “high church” practices, which have long prevailed in Barchester, count against him.

In what seems the worst possible outcome, the newly appointed Bishop Proudie, is not merely “evangelical”, but completely under the thumb of his wife who has chosen as his chaplain her protégé Mr Slope, a slippery  schemer who  fully intends to run the show himself. The twists and turns of the ensuing power struggle are complicated by the fact that three very different men, including Obadiah Slope, are drawn in various ways not only to Grantly’s sister-in-law Eleanor Bold, a beautiful and wealthy young widow, but to the even more alluring but crippled Signora Neroni with  a mysteriously absent Italian husband, who flirts outrageously from her sofa as a distraction.

Much of this novel is a page-turner by reason of Trollope’s very acute observation of human nature and his ability  to describe it so vividly in all its contradictory shifts. His plots are  imaginative and humorous, with strong dialogues which often have the directness of a playscript.  The occasional “continuity errors”, generally in timing, do not matter greatly and are probably a result of the novel having been written and expanded over a period of months.

The more serious drawbacks for a modern reader are the result of  the inevitable  radical changes in  the accepted style of writing and in society over more than a century and a half.  Trollope is an intrusive narrator, who cannot resist  often telling the reader what is going to happen, musing about such matters as the problem of knowing how to finish a book, or simply digressing to bang on about some new custom  which he personally dislikes.  He causes occasional twinges of unease with examples of  anti-semitism, male chauvinism and class snobbery,  because although one know he was understandably influenced by the values of his times, one somehow expects such a perceptive man to be more self-aware as regards such issues. Some sections are heavy going  because of the references to the doctrinal battles within the Church and  the political divisions of the day, together with the Latin tags now long forgotten. Obviously, one can look these up, but that is a distraction from the plot flow.

Overall, although one might not wish to wade through all the Barsetshire Chronicles,  this classic is certainly worth reading. Throughout, Eleanor’s father, the outwardly meek, even weak Septimus Harding remains the most decent, fair-minded and truly virtuous of them all.

“The Battle of the Villa Fiorita” by Rumer Godden – unintended consequences

Cocooned in a middle-class country house world of around 1960, conventional, dutiful and considered dull by her “friends”, Fanny’s life revolves round her three children or her garden when they are at boarding school, while her reliable if also somewhat dull husband Darrell is often working abroad. When, by chance, she catches the eye of a charismatic film director called Rob, she cannot resist the realisation of what a totally different life with him could be. Divorced by Darrell, who also gains custody of their children, Fanny is suppressing her guilt during her stay with Rob in an idyllic villa on the shores of Lake Garda, when her two younger offspring, eleven-year-old Caddie and Hugh, who is fourteen, show surprising initiative and guile in arriving unexpectedly to persuade her to return “home”. Delighted by the fact that they still “want” her, the upsurge in her maternal instincts inevitably creates tensions in her relations with the pragmatic and somewhat cynical Rob, who also turns out to have a daughter Pia who proves as opposed to his planned marriage as are the other children. Unintended consequences of their actions and the unpredictability of Lake Garda itself, build up to a dramatic climax. How can the children possibly succeed in splitting Fanny and Rob who clearly love each other. If they do, will they live to regret it?

What may sound “Mills-and-Boon”, and I would be interested to know if this novel appeals to male readers, is saved by the fact that the prolific author Rumer Godden was an expert storyteller, who mixes wry humour and poignancy, giving all her characters distinct personalities, and entering into the minds of the main ones, so that one understands their motivations, and feels some sympathy even when disliking them, or vice versa. She also creates a strong sense of place, in this case mostly of Lake Garda, which tallies with my memories of, say, the lakeside lemon groves at Limone, Malcesine with it steep streets and castle below the grassy slopes at Monte Baldo, the sudden dramatic storms which descend on the lake, plus it is interesting to read descriptions of an area before it was inundated with modern tourism.

This novel will probably seem dated, although it brought back a vivid memory of the late 1950s when my tight-lipped mother would not allow mention at the dinner table of the divorce of a school-friend’s parents. It seems that Rumer Godden’s own divorce of her first husband and realisation of the “turmoil” this created for her daughters was the genesis of this highly fictionalised account, also making the writing more authentic. On reflection, I was satisfied by the ending which leaves the future open and uncertain, as is the case in real life.

My only criticisms are over some aspects of the portrayal of Pia and Hugh, which it would be a spoiler to explain. Also, in the latter part of the novel, perhaps the author’s own conversion to the Catholic faith may have created a sense of guilt and retribution for sin which undermined her insights as a writer.

“A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry: “A passing drama of the earth”.

In the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” stands out by portraying the First World War from a German perspective, “A Long Long Way” is distinctive in portraying an Irish viewpoint.

The young hero Willy Dunne is eager to join up as a  means of compensating for the short stature which has made it impossible for him to join the Dublin police force, to his father’s all too evident regret. In the trenches, Willy soon experiences the squalor and tedium alternating with the terror of being the continual target of snipers and deadly gas attacks which gradually bring him to a realisation of the futility of war.

The details of the Irish political crisis which was coming to a head at the same time  are a little hard to follow without prior knowledge, but the fragmented details probably give a very accurate impression of Willy’s own limited understanding of the situation. About to board a ship at the end of a brief period of leave, Willy is caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, the civil war which pitted rebel Irishmen against their pro-British compatriots. The sight of a young man, very like himself, dying at his feet on a Dublin street  makes a deep impression, but when he tries to express his feelings in a letter  home to his fiercely loyalist father,  the latter disowns him, unable to empathise with the evolution in attitudes that life at the front has brought about.

By turns lyrical and poetic, or filled with “a touch of the blarney” when the soldiers are joshing in the trenches to keep their spirits up,  this is probably the most explicit and visceral, “blow by blow” imagining of a young soldier’s  experiences  of World War 1 that I have read. It captures Willy’s numbed acceptance of fate: on one hand his vulnerability to being struck down at any moment, on the other his apparent indestructibility as comrades die, often before he has a chance to get to know them properly,  to be replaced by others in a seemingly endless cycle.

There is the surreal contrast of the occasional visits home where those closest to him have no inkling of the horror of the trenches. For the most part his girlfriend Gretta serves as a symbol of love and normality for him to cling to in the surreal world of war.  Even when his ordeals in the trenches are  compounded by unexpected and somewhat unjust rejection on a personal level during his final visit home,   all this is offset by one of the most moving and subtle scenes in the book, when Willy bravely makes a point of visiting the family home of Captain Pasley, his first officer in command  who sacrificed his life so pointlessly.

There were times when all seemed so bleak and graphic that I questioned whether to read on, but although the end  was something of a contrived anticlimax , “A Long, Long Way” is worth reading, particularly if one’s first encounter with a novel of the First World War.