Books: Skirmishing in Spain on an unsentimental journey

Penelope Lively enjoys a master craftsman's despatches from the battlefield of life

Blame Hitler by Julian Rathbone, Gollancz, pounds 15.99

Julian Rathbone is the author of 24 novels, of which a mere three are in print in paperback; probably his name is familiar only to those who base their reading on the public libraries. This is regrettable, because he is a writer of great flexibility, moving easily from the historical novel through thrillers to the sort of contemporary fiction with psychological overtones that we have here. Blame Hitler is a demonstration of that professionalism which is invisible until you stand back and unravel exactly what has been done.

Students of creative writing could take on the theme as a challenge. Within 287 pages and a narrative time-span of around a fortnight, serve up convincing portraits of two families, one contemporary, one in the 1930s, evoke the atmosphere of a family holiday, blend in significant references to the Peninsula War and the Libyan campaign and underpin the whole with a meaningful correlation between private life and public events.

Thomas Somers is pushing 60, married to a woman nearly 20 years younger and with children of ten and 14. The four of them are on a motoring holiday in France: an unstructured affair which is to take them to stay with friends in the south and then possibly on into Spain, pandering to Thomas's obsession with the Peninsula War. Throughout the trip, he drifts from the reality of family, friends and the scenes of the itinerant holiday to his internal wanderings, based on the edition of Wellington's despatches which he is reading (edited by Julian Rathbone, quotations duly acknowledged) and, even more significantly, his disturbed reflections about his childhood. Within days Thomas will reach the age at which his father died; he finds this prospect deeply unsettling.

Intimations of malign fate crop up from the start, with mounting gravity. First there are just the standard mishaps of car keys apparently lost, the cap of the petrol tank left on the car roof, the near accident that leaves everyone shaken out of holiday complacency. Thomas gets a bout of flu. More sinister - he has rectal bleeding. Thomas's bowel movements become a central matter of the narrative.

My own reservations about Thomas are not that we have to spend an awful lot of time in the lavatory with him, but concern his personality. He comes across as distinctly unappealing and I'm not sure that this is the author's intention. He is obsessive in every way - about his father, about the war, about sex. He is panicked by that looming climacteric - 60. The anxious sexual fanaticism lands him in trouble when he allows himself to believe that a young hippy who picks him up is seduced by his ageing charms. He is far more tolerable when mulling over the memories of his parents, which weave into the contemporary narrative and turn it into something more than a brisk account of a meander through France and into Spain.

Thomas's father was a victim of history, his life "stained" by an event during his war service in the western desert. But before that, he was betrayed by the social and economic climate: an Oxford graduate never able to earn a decent living, a man trapped by class and assumptions. Thomas is haunted by the conviction that his father was a better man than he is and also by a kind of grim rivalry. The final section takes Thomas off on his own into Spain, allowing for a defiantly appreciative account of a bullfight and some convincing drunken hallucinations of the Peninsula campaign. And even if the end seems an anti-climax, this is a shrewd and intricate narrative by a skilful novelist, admirably deft in its shifts from the inconsequential dailiness of the family holiday to the immediacies of childhood memory and battlefield experience.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy