“We left poor Sandy in a shite grave on that fucking beach, Jack,” he choked out. “And Toby…” He reached with his left hand to his cheek and lightly touched the scar.
Jack saw an opening. “Will, what happened to Toby?” Will’s head snapped up, his face wide-eyed, almost unrecognizable. Then he faded again, out across the water. There was a quiet creak from the door, which neither Jack nor Will noticed.
“He wanted to jump the bags that first day on the Somme, wouldn’t be left back with the ten percent that time.” He stroked the scar with unbearable lightness. “We found a break in the wire and were holding it open for the men to get through, he and I.” Will stopped stroking the scar now, his headed cocked to one side. “Then everything went topsy-turvy… And he was gone.” Will looked down at his waistcoat and shirt, dropped the Webley on the desktop, and began to wipe at his clothing. He began lightly, like petting a cat, then harder and faster at his sleeves and shirt front. As he rubbed, his body began to shake. He looked up to Jack with wild pleading. “Get it off! Please God, get it off!”
There was a loud sob from behind and Jack turned to see Deirdre and Gussie in the doorway, the younger woman crying into an already soaked handkerchief. Dee had a look of astonishment Jack had never seen before. She walked forward, not taking her eyes from Will. Jack eased the gun from off the desk and slid it into the waistband of his trousers at the small of his back. Dee came to the desk and turned Will in the swivel chair until he faced her, still shaking and rubbing at this clothing. She knelt on the floor and took his hands, one at a time, into hers. She looked up at him with such compassion Jack could scarcely bear to watch her.
But she knew now. Will was the only other one in the room who might know, too. “It was you at the Casualty Clearing Station, wasn’t it? I remember you now.” Will stared back, eyes pleading for help. He wrenched his hands from Dee’s grasp and began rubbing furiously again. “You were covered in blood and… and… all manner of…” Her voice caught, daring no more detail, for both their sakes. “That was Toby, wasn’t it, Will?”
I’ve read quite a few novels recently that in a way or another involve WWI and veterans from that war. None of Us the Same by Jeffrey Walker is the first one that truly rings authentic. It’s a very subtle line. It isn’t easy for me to say what it is that makes this story different, because also the other novels I’ve read were very well-researched. The different isn’t in the research itself, I believe, it’s more in the personal experience an author can put into their story.
Jeffrey is a veteran himself, and this shows in many places, especially in the long section about the actual war. There is something very ‘normal’ about his war scenes, if this makes any sense. While the other novels I’ve read gave out a strong sense of the tragedy WWI had been, Jeffrey’s WWI has a flavour of everyday life. This is how millions of men and women lived everyday during that time. Sure, there were the big battles, but there were also the little things of life happening in the trenches.
The war scene are my favourite. Of course they are very relevant on a narrative level, but they are also very important for connecting with these characters. And as I said, for me there was an extra level of authenticity to them.
The rest of the novel deals with what the war left attached to every one of these characters. Interesting as it was, it wasn’t as involving as the war scenes (this is probably quite natural), and it was also quite episodic. Every episode was good, it let me come very near to the characters and I felt for all of them, but it was kind of isolated. Not really a problem, but I wonder whether a more organic plot would have enhanced the sense of belonging even further.
It’s a good story, well researched, written with compassion and with relatable characters. I enjoyed it.
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