Adam Foulds’s last novel, The Quickening Maze, was a truly superb study in madness and early psychiatric methods, combining the intellectual and the visceral in often startling ways (few will forget his description of the “dismantling” of a deer). In this latest work, he retains that powerful blend and focuses on another kind of madness: the madness of war.
Angilu is a shepherd in the hills of Sicily in 1926, subject to bandit raids and the corruption of his mafia boss, Ciro Albenese. After a shoot-out results in the death of one man, Ciro escapes to America, leaving a job vacancy that the landowner, Prince Adriano, asks Angilu to fill. Fast forward 16 years to the middle of the Second World War, and we meet the frustrated English intellectual Will Walker, hoping for a high position in the military yet forced to bow down to lesser men, and Ray Marfione, an American soldier of Italian descent, on his way to the Allied campaign in North Africa.
Foulds ties the fates of these four men together in often poetic ways. Ray is a dreamer, a fan of the movies, who likes “huge skies” and the “strong, simple stories” of “men moving with their animals”, which reminds us of Angilu the shepherd. Ray dreams of making a film in which a young woman is joined on a park bench by a stranger, and romance between them begins. This haunts us later, when we see Ciro in America, and learn how he met his mistress, the Irish girl Cathy, beside whom he sits on a park bench one day. Both images are adulterated in the reality version, which violence and betrayal infiltrate.
Will, too, tries to intellectualise reality even as the war regularly prevents it, with atrocities and prejudices to which he cannot stay immune; he, too, will take a can of food to the beautiful girl in the Palermo square who he saw selling herself to a line of soldiers, and he, too, will succumb to national stereotyping that initially he resists. Ray’s friend George will change through their campaign, from the steady, moral type Ray imagines as the hero of westerns, into a different person altogether. Ray the dreamer, hiding out in the Prince’s house after he has reached Sicily, will descend into a different dream world, the horrors of war almost overtaking him.
Violence, whether global or local, changes all these men, even Ciro, who was violent enough to begin with. There is a different kind of poetry in Foulds’s descriptions of battle, in the chaos of a defeated town, in the disintegration of a mind, and in the final act of face-to-face murder that sees a new generation of killers emerge, that speaks of the horrors of war but also of the legacy those horrors leave. Sicily’s fate is in the hands of men like Will, Ray, Angilu and Ciro. That they make a colossal mess of it is perhaps no surprise; Will understands that a different outcome is possible but he is too tainted now to help it. The bleakness of Foulds’s message, however, is not reflected in the richness of the prose or characterisation of this deep, dark, demanding tale. Which is perhaps just as well; we are only human, we can only take so much.