Pink Mist, By Owen Sheers. Faber & Faber, £12.99


Pink mist curls through this hugely atmospheric and affecting verse-drama as a haunting symbol of the gulf between being and nothingness. How to cope when a loved one dies: goes "from being there to not", vanishes into "a fine spray of pink, a delicate mist"?

This slim book grapples powerfully with the weightiest themes of life and death, hitherto explored in myriad forms by versatile poet and novelist Owen Sheers. Here, three schoolfriends from Bristol, teenagers Arthur, Hads and Taff, enlist as soldiers and are deployed to Afghanistan. Their suffering is refracted through their perspectives and their loved ones' – a mother, wife, and girlfriend – in a compelling chorus of voices.

Tugging at the heartstrings is the theme of home: the desire to leave and the impossibility of returning psychologically, even when physical return becomes necessary. A poignant mood of departure opens the narrative: "Not going someplace but leaving somewhere./ Getting out, moving on, away from here". But when the soldiers try "to come home proper from the war", it is difficult. They have irrevocably changed. Actual homelessness is the fate of Taff, able to accept help only after "a thinning of that thickened skin".

Sheers probes pain, perceptively questioning the extent to which physical and psychological damage can be healed: "The burns, the hallucinations, even his back/ All that healed… But something else had been hurt/ something the surgeons couldn't reach".

Drawing on interviews with soldiers and their families, interweaving medieval Welsh poetry, Pink Mist reveals the power of the poetic narrative to go far beyond news headlines in conveying the devastating effects of warfare.

Amid the suffering, hope remains, as the crippled Hads resolves to "make the living I'd got left worthwhile". After all, "you have to try and count the blessing, not the curse". Masterfully controlling rhyme and rhythm, Sheers tunnels through the darkness to display the triumph of love and language over violence and silence.

Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030