Neverhome review: Penelope marches to war

Laird Hunt’s staggering novel is ‘The Odyssey’ reimagined as one woman’s journey into the heart of darkness

Laird Hunt: reinvigorates the American language with a poetic urgency equal to Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Laird Hunt: reinvigorates the American language with a poetic urgency equal to Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Sat, Jan 31, 2015, 01:31


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Laird Hunt


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Chaos rages as the American Civil War drags on and a young wife recalls something she was often told.

“My mother had a story she liked to tell about a man heard Death was waiting up around the bend. He changed his direction and walked the other way. You know how that ends.”

Constance lives with the memory of her dead mother, her words, her deeds and, above all, her doomed courage. That courage is important; it sustains her because her husband, a loving, gentle man who gives her flowers, doesn’t go to fight. Constance does.

It’s all explained in the opening sentence by a narrator who fixes us with her harrowing intensity and ensures we listen: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.”

Laird Hunt’s sixth novel is a bravura, breakthrough performance in which he spins a deliberately Homeric tale as ambivalent as life itself. In the telling he reinvigorates the American language with a poetic urgency equal to Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Neverhome is inspired by the 400 women who are known to have served as soldiers, often in disguise, in the War Between the States.

Constance is a hardy character. She learned how to fight in the schoolyard, boasts convincingly work-toughened hands with thick fingers, and is such a skilled shot that her timid husband advises her to miss every so often, if only to avoid suspicion. But Constance, fraught by nature, acts on impulse. War may have made her unstable, but it seems she was temperamentally headed that way. It eventually becomes clear that she has suffered her share of trauma before ever seeing battle.

Hunt slowly releases enough information to make the strange and troubled Constance interesting, even sympathetic. And she is also always convincing – not quite a heroine but a sharp-tongued survivor with a moral sense, albeit a lopsided one.

“I stepped across the border out of Indiana into Ohio . . . There was heat in the air so I walked in my shirtsleeves with my hat pulled low. I wasn’t the only one looking to enlist . . . Farm folk cheered as we went by . . . Everything you’ve heard about from the early days, even though it had already been a year since Fort Sumter, and there had already been the First Bull Run, and Shiloh had stole off its souls, and the early days were done and dead and gone.”

It takes another woman to detect Constance’s female identity. “No one else outside that lady saw what I was.”

History light

Hunt concentrates on atmosphere and brilliantly imagines the hell of endless miles of scorched landscape littered with the dead, the dying and the increasingly deranged. In the beginning the young untrained soldiers are jaunty with the novelty of adventure. One of them tosses a skull at a young woman watching the soldiers troop by. “She neither laughed nor dropped the mossy thing but considered it a minute and then turned and set it carefully on the window ledge next to her.”

Constance watches everything. At times it’s as if she is in a trance and the narrative unfolds in vivid episodic sequences that are often curiously self-contained, like so many little stories. She often has wild, surreal dreams. But when awake and sensing the dead souls all around her, she is a good reporter, unschooled but always clear-eyed and ready to respond to the learning of others.

Her observations are invariably made all the more haunting by Hunt’s subtle use of a vernacular, which never falters into laboured caricature.

Of the first man she kills, Constance recalls: “You could see a kind of brown bloom coming up through his light coat.” She even remains with him for a moment: “Like anyone else, I’d seen plenty of the dead, but never one I had made.” She asks her dead mother if she had witnessed the deed and senses her mother’s affirming reply. By the next morning, Constance takes another look. “When the sun was up sufficient I saw that the dead man’s open eyes were blue.”

Soon she is facing more direct combat. “We had come to a field as long and wide as you like with us on one side and them on the other. It was their boys in their soldier hats and us in ours. If we’d been wearing the same colors, you could have thought it was a mirror. Like the central job of it was we were fixing to fire at ourselves. Like the other half of it, the mirror, was fixing to fire straight back.”

By assisting a girl whose clothing becomes revealingly dishevelled Constance earns a nickname, Gallant Ash, and a song is made up about her. Her colonel notices that she is a good shot and also enquires if she stole food from her comrades. She is betrayed in many ways, at times by herself. Yet the wonder of this brutal and thrilling novel is the stark ease of the language, the sudden grace of the imagery.

At times it seems that the damaged narrator is besotted with war and that it is feeding some void within her. She describes a cavalry charge: “The sight of a line of those fine horsemen coming at you through the smoke was a beautiful thing to behold . . . It was those horsemen, riding low, pistols at the ready, sabers up. They looked like knights.”

All the while Constance is fighting and away from the farm being tended by her husband, she thinks of him and the life they shared together, which began with his giving her a flower. Yet each gentle thought is quickly countered by a violent one. Constance lives in torment. A saviour she meets along the way betrays her. Betrayal is a constant theme.

A woman’s odyssey

Hunt’s previous novel, Kind One (2012) was also about the Civil War, but Neverhome is high art. The story is strong, the prose superbly wrought. It is a novel to set beside Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006) and The Maid’s Version (2013), and Ron Rash’s The Cove (2012).

The finale is fierce and desperate. There are slight echoes of Patrick deWitt’s dazzling The Sisters Brothers (2011), although Hunt doesn’t share the Canadian’s humorous pathos. Still, Neverhome is a wondrous feat. Few novels written in English approach its linguistic verve. Constance’s strange narrative possesses a singular integrity and force of purpose. It is one woman’s story, with a multiplicity of twists, yet it is also a philosophical novel in which war is reduced to a secondary metaphor.

Laird Hunt seems to be saying that all violence does indeed come from within.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent