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The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison, book review: A gripping portrait of the horror - and humour - of war


Some time in 1942 or 1943 , a man lies prostrate in the Libyan desert, still clinging to his postbag of letters. A motorcycle lies behind him. This is the letter bearer, a young officer who has lost his memory – and all knowledge of how he came to be where he is. Through his story, debut writer Robert Allison examines the horror and the pity – and even the humour – of war.

The letter bearer is quickly discovered by a ragtag group of men – deserters from the British army, hoping to take refuge in the desert until the war ends. The men are without ranks and yet there is still a hierarchy in their makeshift camp. Brinkhurst assumes the role of commanding office, brusque, with every appearance of a “country gentleman”, except for his “sandblasted face”. Swann is his second, aggressive, terrifying and intent on command. And then there is the most pathetic figure of all, their Italian prisoner of war, Lucchi, who takes pity on everything from overheated chickens to the rider himself when he falls and can walk no further.

The rider can remember nothing – but he has his bag of letters, all from one battalion's tank regiment. Every night, he reads over them – love letters, practical missives, confessions of misdemeanours past. He thinks he finds a letter written by him to his wife, but he cannot be sure and tries to construct a relationship with her in his mind. He drags his postbag everywhere, refusing to leave it even when he is so weak he can barely carry himself. The letters seem to hold the key to his past, as well as gesturing at a kinder, more ordered world than the desert anarchy in which he now survives.

In sinuous, intricate prose, Allison describes the letter bearer's physical pain, his mental disorientation, the incredible scenery of the desert, the casual brutality of the men. When they are spotted by an Italian plane and have to leave their camp to find another place to hide in the desert, the fragile structures of their world begin to collapse.

Allison's is a beautifully written investigation into alienation, guilt and the will to survive. The desert is a character itself, brilliantly alive and vividly depicted. Amnesia has proved a rich subject for fiction over recent years – and perhaps it is most so in the study of war, when even those who have their memory hope to forget what they have seen and so many wish, like the rider to be forgotten and “given up to mystery”. This is a gripping exploration of one man's travails – and through him, those of millions other men trapped in the terrible mechanism of war.