The Harrowing, By Robert Dinsdale

A dark fable of warring brothers

Robert Dinsdale's first novel draws on elements of the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and the legend of Christ's harrowing of hell, with echoes of such modern films as The Searchers and Saving Private Ryan. It tells a very strange story set against the backdrop of the First World War.

In the prologue, Samuel, jealous of William, attempts to kill his brother by beating his head in with a rock on the moors on the edge of Leeds. William wakes up in hospital and pieces together what has happened to him. Meanwhile, his brother has fled into the army and William decides to follow him to France and, if possible, save him by offering forgiveness. In the first part, the moors and the industrial city are well caught; but things start to go wrong in the depiction of life almost 100 years ago.

Speech is either deliberately archaic or jarringly modern. The boys from William's old school, now 17 or 18, do nothing except hang around pub doorways and get drunk on the moors. But in 1916, in a world of family, work and obligation, this idle extended adolescence was surely not available. Similarly, the army is a bizarrely undisciplined affair. Those noncommissioned officers who so rudely ruled the lives of private soldiers are hardly present. Arriving at the Front, William ambles along to see his commanding officer and shakes him by the hand before explaining that he has only come to find his brother, now a deserter.

Paradoxically, the book is at its best when it departs furthest from realism. William goes in search of Samuel and is in turn pursued by the sinister Flynn, whose job it is to hunt deserters. We know on one level that the brothers' ability to escape the trenches would have been impossible, but the twists and turns of hunters and hunted through a devastated land have a genuinely nightmarish feel. Best to treat The Harrowing as an intermittently powerful poetic fable rather than a realistic novel. However flawed, it is a bravely ambitious debut.