After the Booker short-listed novel, The Dark Room, and a short story volume, Field Study, which both used war as a backdrop, Rachel Seiffert's second novel returns to that territory to give us a problematic love story.
Painter and decorator Joseph was once a soldier but he left the army after shooting the driver of a car at a checkpoint in Armagh while stationed in Northern Ireland, a car which also held the man's wife and children. A now elderly David once took part in bombing raids over mountainous regions in Kenya in the 1950s. What links them is a young woman, Alice, who becomes the girlfriend of Joseph, and is the granddaughter of David.
Joseph is a troubled soul, still feeling great guilt over shooting a man who had a gun in his possession but had not actually threatened anyone with it. Alice is a nurse whose mother fell pregnant with her when she was a student, and who has never met her father, although she has written to him a few times. Her grandmother has recently died, and she is helping her grandfather sort through things when she asks Joseph to help redecorate to his house.
This is meaty fare, and Seiffert portrays squaddie life, in brief glimpses of Joseph's time in the army, convincingly. But the relationship that lies at the heart of the story is full of problems, and this makes the end result, given Seiffert's past achievements, somewhat disappointing. Telling us straightaway about Joseph's past is the first problem, as it destroys any sense of revelation for us, because the questions Seiffert wants the novel to ask are not "what happened" or "how did it happen", but "will Joseph be able to tell Alice", and "does she need to know"?
Secondly, everyone talks in the same truncated manner, where personal pronouns are erased ("Joseph didn't have a ready answer. Felt like that the whole time he was in there"), producing a noticeable stylistic feature that suggests the erasure of the subject, the consequence of traumatic experiences. As a style, it has a distancing effect. Added to this the lack of any sexual charge or eroticism in Alice and Joseph's relationship, where compensation for that distancing style should have occurred, ultimately prevents us caring enough about them.
With the exceptions of flashbacks to Joseph in Northern Ireland, and the initial description of David's bombing raid in Kenya, many of the novel's crucial events are never made real for us, but simply told in conversation. (Often, Seiffert does not even bother to provide a segue, repeatedly having characters suddenly bring up unrelated subjects of their own accord.) The events we do witness are largely mundane ones - Joseph painting the house, Joseph and Alice going for walks.
Seiffert is keen to play everything down: her prose is bare, emotions are held in check, the plot eschews suspense, flashbacks are kept to a minimum. This is understandable given the message at the heart of the novel about the problem of communication, even in the most intimate and revealing of relationships. But it is a mistake to do this. Seiffert is not a sensual writer, yet she has placed a sensual relationship at the heart of her story. It plays not to her strengths, but, rather, exposes her weaknesses.Reuse content