Novel of considerable scale

A Soldier’s Wife
Marion Reynolds
Indigo Dreams Publishing, £8.99;
Kindle, £4.38
Review: Billy O’Callaghan

A Soldier’s Wife is a study of two decades in the life of Ellen Ainsworth. We meet her first in her family’s lodge kitchen in the summer of 1901, pouring tea for her visiting cousin, Jack, and his British Army comrade, a handsome Dublin sergeant named James Devereux. The eldest of four daughters, with “a reputation for being very ladylike and dainty”, she lives with her parents and sisters on an estate in Castlebar, and works as governess to the children of Lord and Lady Lucan. Though still only 20 years old, the possibilities of romance seem to have passed her by, so it is only natural that the soldier should catch her eye. And the attraction is clearly mutual, though time is not on their side. James, ten years her senior, is a year from an overseas posting, a return to India.

From here, they embark on a whirlwind courtship. Ellen’s mother has some reluctance, knowing that life as the wife of a soldier will be difficult, but no one stands in the way of love. The couple marry, and settle into barracks accommodation. By the time they are ready to set sail for India, on a seven-year posting, they have already extended their family by one, a beautiful daughter, Nancy. But the voyage brings tragedy when the infant succumbs to an outbreak of measles that has become rampant among the ship’s children, and has to be buried at sea.

For Ellen, it is the first real example of how brutal life can be. Surviving such grief is a monumental task, heightened by the fact that she is thousands of miles from the solace of family. But India proves a gentle experience. Aided by local servants and the supportive wives of other soldiers, time brings a kind of healing, and soon enough, more children, two sons, Harry and Joseph, and a daughter, Kathleen.

The seven years pass surprisingly quickly. Returning home, they find Ireland a strange place after the brightness of India. Having served his time, James is demobbed. The army finds him a home in Dublin, and a position in the post office. But the world is changing, and while war is brewing across Europe, Dublin has a hint of rebellion in its air.

Based loosely on the experiences of her grandparents, the debut novel of Marion Reynolds has already been named joint winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s Novel Fair 2013. As a first work, it is an ambitious undertaking, a novel of considerable scale. Inevitably, the wonders of such a book are tempered by the occasional misstep. A brief epistolary prologue entices but ultimately compromises the emotional impact of one of the novel’s early climaxes. The narrative, in clean, linear fashion, touches all the historical high points of the era. As a result, the plotting can feel at times a bit contrived, though the scenes are handled well enough to overcome any faint tinge of didacticism. And the dialogue, while natural enough, now and then commits the small sin of force feeding.

Most impressive is the author’s striking clarity of style, a control of language that is deceptive in its apparent simplicity and which keeps the focus tightly on the story at all times. Miss Reynolds also displays an obvious flare for characterisation, and the main characters, Ellen and James, are particularly well developed, as indeed are some of the lesser ones, most notably Ellen’s mother and some of the soldiers’ wives. Others, though, seem to exist purely for the purpose of winding some historical moment into the narrative. Still, such minor flaws are easily overlooked given the wealth of pleasure offered within these pages.

All things considered, a sterling debut that anticipates even greater things to come.


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