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Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray (book review)

TWO STORM WOOD (Philip Gray) The Somme, 1919. The guns are silent. The dead are not.

Goodreads description

THE GUNS ARE SILENT. THE DEAD ARE NOT.

1919. On the desolate battlefields of northern France, the guns of the Great War are silent. Special battalions now face the dangerous task of gathering up the dead for mass burial.

Captain Mackenzie, a survivor of the war, cannot yet bring himself to go home. First he must see that his fallen comrades are recovered and laid to rest. His task is upended when a gruesome discovery is made beneath the ruins of a German strongpoint.

Amy Vanneck’s fiancé is one soldier lost amongst many, but she cannot accept that his body may never be found. Defying convention, hardship and impossible odds, she heads to France, determined to discover what became of the man she loved.

It soon becomes clear that what Mackenzie has uncovered is a war crime of inhuman savagery. As the dark truth leaches out, both he and Amy are drawn into the hunt for a psychopath, one for whom the atrocity at Two Storm Wood is not an end, but a beginning.

Thursday Quotables Meme

Seriously, one of the best mysteries I’ve read recently. 
Yes, I will admit that it gave a bit at the end, but the story is very strong. And then, I’ve read an ARC. There’s a chance the end will be revised again before publication. 

My experience as a reader is that historical mysteries are often a mixed bag. Most I’ve read lacked on the ‘historical’ side. Two Storm Wood by Phil Gray isn’t the case. This novel is an incredibly well-research book and more than this. The research was skillfully used to create a setting that is alive and breathing. I often felt I was there, in the abandoned trenches, not just because of the tactile and sensorial impressions but also for the atmosphere. Gray creates a haunting place, and if occasionally he slips into a recognisable horror mode, that doesn’t harm the historical accuracy at all. 
I was also very impressed by the vividity of the military life in the trenches. Military life is always tricky to represent because it is so unique, specific, and even more so when we’re talking about a historical experience. I never had a feeling that the author was gripping in the dark. The description of military life was so detailed that I never felt lost. This was true in both the sequences set during the war and those after it. The abandoned battlefields where teams of voluntaries searched for the fallen to give them a resting place and where families (and tourists) went to find their loved ones or to feel a thrill came alive on the page. 
I loved it.

The mystery was impenetrable. 
The story employs a non-linear plot that alternates sequences in the trenches in 1918 and the bulk of the story, set in 1919. I love non-linear plotlines. I think they are particularly effective for mysteries because it allows the reader to learn the story’s details bit by bit and gradually connect them to the main plot. It was satisfying in this case because the ‘truth’ the main plot uncovered changed many times, and the vision into the past gradually allowed me to make up my own mind about what happened. 
The investigation on the ground was presented in a very realistic way. The characters discovered details and information slowly, mostly talking to each other or working out things they learned. It helped that all the characters were very smart, which is something else I really appreciate. 

And talking about the characters: they are all fantastic!
I cared about all for them, and it was very difficult to work out who was to trust and who was lying. 
They are all carefully built, especially on a psychological level. I loved the discourse about mourning, shell shock, working out psychological damage and physical disfigurement. WWI was a terrible cultural shock for the people who lived through it, and this novel manages to get the feel through beautifully. 
Amy Vanneck, who can be considered the protagonist (but all characters somehow felt protagonists), is an incredible heroine. In historical fiction, I often see women with too much of a modern attitude, who act as if they were living in the XXI century, not their time. Amy is definitely a rebellious woman – in her own way. A new woman, true to the period. She’s not afraid to defy the social rules, especially those that don’t have any sense after the upheaval of war, and still, she never feels out of place. She’s always very aware of the social mores of her time, even when she decides to go against them – or at least to bend them. Honestly, this kind of handling of a historical character makes the message far stronger than just making her a XXI-century woman ‘in disguise’. 
The veterans are all great characters. The author is visibly interested in the damaging power of the experience of war. All his characters are damaged in one way or another. Some of them are clearly irreparably so, but for others, there is hope, and this too – I think – is historically accurate. All are so realistically built that I deeply cared about all of them, even the more ambiguous. Their humanity was what came through, their personal experiences creating compassion that didn’t disappear even in the face of the most gruesome revelations. 
There’s a lot to love about this book, but I think the characters will be what will remain with me longer. 

The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the ending. I found it a bit rush and left to chance, which contrasts with the bulk of the story. But as I said, I read an ARC, and it’s possible that the end of the story in the published novel will be different. I hope so because it would make this novel even more unforgettable. 

Two Storm Wood

Excerpt

‘Do you get used to this?’ she said at last. ‘All this death – all this…? Does it become normal for you?’

‘Normal?’ Westwood repeated the word as if it were unfamiliar to him. ‘I suppose if it were normal, I wouldn’t have been sent here.’

‘You don’t know why you were sent. Why should Whitehall care about a few dead Chinamen? Isn’t that what you said?’

‘They sent me to gather the facts. My feelings aren’t important, if that’s what you’re getting at.’

Westbrook dragged a chair out from under the table. She heard him pick up the carving knife.

‘Don’t you understand? Amy said. ‘All this tolerance, this keeping up appearances. Like it’s all a game. Where’s the outrage? Can’t you feel it anymore?’

Westbrook sighed. ‘In the face of extreme violence, men either become resolute or they submit. They muster their dread – feed on it – or it breaks them. Moral outrage is quite useless, I’m afraid.’

He was digging at the meat, tracing the lines of sinew with the tip of the knife.

‘And then there are some kind of men for whom violence brings clarity. They embrace the elemental force of it. Rules and other abstractions… Well, I couldn’t expect you to understand.’

‘I don’t. I don’t want to understand.’

‘Why should you?’

Amy turned away again. ‘The things I’ve seen… they’re unforgivable. Who could live with the guilt?’

‘Not all men fear judgment, Miss Vanneck. Not yours or mine, and not God’s, either.’

Amy nodded. That must be true. Their existence must be lonely then.’

TWO STORM WOOD by Philip Gray - The war damaged them all. Now, in the abandoned battlefields of WWI, some of them are searching for people for their mind and their soul.

In post is part of the Thursday Quotables meme. If you want to discover more about this meme and maybe take part in it, head over to Bookshelf Fantasies


8 Comments

  • History Marche
    Posted September 10, 2021 at 07:41

    Very nice Book review one thing of your blog which I like most the honesty two storm wood is really a nice Book thank you

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 12, 2021 at 08:40

      Honestly, one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

  • Nes
    Posted September 28, 2021 at 16:47

    Thanks for sharing this review, looks like a great read for the end of 2021!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 30, 2021 at 21:27

      It’s a great book. And I’d say, quite good for October and its Halloween mood 😉

  • MD Tariful Islam Sabbir
    Posted October 27, 2021 at 08:49

    This post really too helpful for me to do blog commenting. Thank you for sharing.

  • Becky
    Posted December 18, 2021 at 18:37

    I too read an ARC. I never thought about the ending possibly being changed. I just thought it was a little abrupt.
    Also, I would have liked more historical info, as in, did Two Storm Wood really exist and what about the Chinese workers? I can’t find anything in the few places I’ve checked online. The author Henning Mankell said that there “was always an element of truth” in a novel.
    Your review really was spot on. Thank you!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted December 18, 2021 at 22:14

      Hi Becky, thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

      Yes, I know that further revisions happenes. Another ARC I read had its ending revised before publication. I learned it from the author herself.

      I can’t say whether Two Storm Wood really existed, but I do know that Chinese labourers were indeed emplyed in the trenches.

      It’s true that some historians still point out how WWI was more of an European war than a proper world war, but that’s not what I’ve learned during my researches. People from all over the world took part, even if many of them have long not be acknowledged. But things are changing now.

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