Fiction on the front line
Good prose, pity about the poetry, says Philippa Gregory: Patrimony by Jane Thynne, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99
Saturday 09 August 1997
What is Up is the slow uncovering of a secret history of a World War One poet, a contemporary of Sassoon and Owen. Disastrously, his poetry is quoted in the novel:
He vowed to serve his country
For King and common good
But no pledge prepared him for the foe he met
Stumbling out there in the mud
Advice to all non-poet authors: never invent poetry and hail it as great literature. The exception to this rule is Antonia Byatt.
This flaw is compounded as the plot hinges on our heroine correctly identifying other newly-discovered poetry as the ghastly doggerel of the poet's talentless daughter:
Like the barrel of a gun in the hand of a spy
The sun regards us with a dispassionate eye
We're in the unambiguous world of After
Where the cloudless landscape doesn't lie.
Well, search me, but I thought that they were both equally awful and thus no clue at all.
Thynne's ear for her own prose is erratic. There is some genuinely fine writing, but the reader is thrown off course by a sudden phrase of teeth- gritting awfulness. Our heroine "shunned the rites of reconciliation" which means, I suppose, that she refused a solacing screw, a beneficent bonk, a forgiving f*** - alliteration is a terrible thing.
We are on safer ground with the unfolding of the two stories that make the body of the novel. The contemporary story is that of Elsa, who works in an independent film production company and wants to make a film about the World War One poet, Valentine Siddons. Her discovery of the mystery behind the legend leads her into a personal discovery too - of the man she is ready to love. It is a simple romance but it is told with conviction and verve.
Their story is intertwined with that of the poet himself, who marries young and foolishly, loves an older and selfish woman, and goes to his death at Passchendaele. The two stories are told alternately, and inevitably there is a drift of interest towards the story of love, frustration and death, and away from the lighter notes of the modern story. Contemporary life has less glamour than prewar Edwardian England, the issues for Valentine Siddons are graver than those of his modern-day biographers.
When the poet is sent forward to the front line, the narrative takes a darker and powerful turn. This part of the novel is excellently researched and movingly told. Thynne has the ability to paint a landscape, and explore a character, and her skills are well-deployed in the poignant descriptions of a countryside and men destroyed by war. Elsa, the modern heroine, speaks from the heart when she says that to make a romantic and rosy picture of such a past is to betray the dead who were forced to their deaths in a war that was neither rosy nor romantic. Thynne can congratulate herself on this: that she has been true to her heroine's standards. She has not written a "dreadful sepia-tinted love story", "all passion and haircuts", but a thoughtful and powerful account of a war which still casts a shadow today.
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