From Wilfred Owen to Erich Maria Remarque to Evelyn Waugh, the dulce et decorum of going to war for one's country has inspired many to take up the pen in reaction to the sword. War fiction is a predominantly male space. A Guardian list of the best war novels includes only a handful of female authors – Beryl Bainbridge, Monica Dickins, Rebecca West, Mollie Panter-Downes, Rose Macaulay and Olivia Manning – among its 66 recommendations.
The imbalance perhaps reflects the nature of war itself, where in the majority it is men who go to battle while women maintain the home front. Caroline Preston’s debut novel looks at the different roles, both male and female, that one Irish family adopts during the second World War. Her scope is commendable, with the various narrative strains offering diverse perspectives that bring the conflict to life. Inspired in part by her family’s history, Preston’s debut harks to a bygone era where the individual and family unit were sacrificed for a greater good.
Of Anglo-Irish descent, the Tottenhams live in a “big house” in rural Westmeath. Their former wealth has dwindled and they struggle to maintain their ailing farm. This doesn’t stop the local boys from taunting 16-year-old Nick, who has always felt like an outsider. The family are seen as English despite the fact that all six children were born and raised in Ireland. It is interesting historical terrain that becomes even more complex when England declares war on Germany in the autumn of 1939.
Up for the fight
Anyone of age within the family signs up to fight: brothers Nick and Tony enlist from Australia, where they’ve been working on their uncle’s ranch; mathematician mother Eleanor calculates flight paths; eldest sister Rose repairs radar masts in Lincolnshire; even the belligerent alcoholic father Gerald signs up for duty in the Far East.
There’s a fictional feel to the different roles as Preston uses an omniscient third person narrator to hop between stories, but the novel retains its realism with vivid detail and characters. The reality of war hits the reader from numerous fronts, most poignantly through the rapid unravelling of Nick’s illusions of glory: “He had seen people falling around him, and recalled with horror the big man with the five children from Coleraine searching the ground for his missing arm.”
Spending much of the conflict as a prisoner of war – first under the Vichy French in Syria and later under some positively medieval Japanese forces in Indonesia – Nick barely survives. Many of his fellow soldiers do not and Preston skilfully highlights how death in such circumstances eventually becomes routine. As he frequently digs graves for his friends, Nick realises the significance of the act is lost on him: “That was the worst of it, he thought. Nothing appalled him any more.”
His brother Tony is likewise drawn to the glory of war, signing up to become a pilot in the air force. A senior officer encourages him before his first flight: “Go on, you sign it son – put your name on the pages of history.” Background research is artfully incorporated. Tony’s mother watches from the control tower, having calculated what flight paths are safest and how many young men are dying in Sterlings as opposed to Lancasters.
Preston neatly uses the omniscient narrative to give backstory on characters without overtly telling. Younger sister Kate details Nick’s poor relationship with his father, or Tony’s geniality and charm. Nick notes of Kate that she has the ability to find everyone’s weak spot. Observations like this feel natural through the characters’ eyes.
Preston was born into a family with a long tradition of service abroad. She studied history and political science in Trinity College before a career as a litigation partner. This Tumult was written following a master’s in creative writing in Trinity in 2013.
Wider period and landscape details – “a full red-and-cream checked skirt swirls above her pretty ankles”; “the sky as clear as gin”; “thick-bellied gum trees” – help bring the era and the book’s myriad settings to life. At times the major theme of how war changes the individual is heavy-handed. On meeting his father, somewhat incredulously, in a prisoner-of-war camp, Nick wonders: “Was it really his father who had changed? Perhaps everyone in this fractured family will be unrecognisable when this is all over.” A postscript after an epilogue feels like overkill, its nonfiction tone jarring after the vibrant narrative.
With so many characters in different roles, the pace rips along from the initial family dynamics in Westmeath, the grumbling over what subsequently seem like minor domestic issues, to a much altered clan five years later. There is a real sense of history and the family’s journey through it.
Early in the book, Eleanor comments about her family’s decision to enlist: “It’s what we do.” By the end, the family learns the cost of such blind allegiance.