The Letter Bearer

By Robert Allison
Granta, £12.99;
Kindle, £8.54
Review: Billy O’Callaghan

In the early 1940s, somewhere in the vast sweltering North African desert, a man lies on the brink of death beside his wrecked motorbike and a sackful of letters.

He is dying but his end is not yet in sight, and finally he is gathered up by a motley crew of British soldiers, men who’ve gone AWOL from the war and in a desperate attempt at self-preservation have taken to living on the run and hiding out in the sandy wilderness.

The letter bearer’s injuries are severe. In addition to perforated eardrums, and damaged retinas that cause him to see everything as a redness, a two-inch shard of shrapnel is removed from between his ribs, but the damage to his lungs is already beyond repair.

The prognosis is vague: maybe days, maybe weeks. Most frustrating of all, though, is the affliction of an acute amnesia, which leaves him with no idea of who he is or where he came from. And whether battened down against sandstorms, or forced into scrambled escape by the searching enemy planes, it becomes his burning question.

Rank holds no sway any more for the mob of deserters; everyone finds their own natural level. Brinkhurst, a manipulative type, is considered the commanding officer, with Swann his brutish second in command. Mawdsley is the medic, a little too familiar with his own supplies.

Making up the numbers are a Canadian named Coates and an Italian prisoner, ‘Lucky’ Lucchi.

Driven by a base instinct for survival, each has been shaped by his own experience of conflict, and each has a story to tell.

But for the letter bearer, the past is a blank. For answers, he turns to his sack of letters and picks through them night after night, aching for some detail to resonate, wondering if he might be one of the names addressed or could have been responsible for the words written to some faraway love.

Robert Allison’s début is an unusual and ambitious work, one that offers a new perspective on the traditional war novel.

Heroism doesn’t register among these pages, and the notion of comradeship feels like a myth.

The wartime desert setting and the theme of physical mutilation prompt inevitable and unavoidable comparisons with a novel like Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, and it is perhaps the author’s awareness of this that at times steers the otherwise finely measured prose in overblown directions. Thankfully, though, these missteps are occasional and fleeting, and don’t detract from the clear-eyed view of the bigger picture.

War, we learn, might be hell, and hell can extend far beyond the walls of war, both in an external sense and also deep within.

But whether in hell or nothingness, even after everything worth having has already been lost, splinters of hope can still exist.


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