This is an exquisite little novella that begins in beauty on the coast of Queensland and ends (almost) in the mud of Flanders on the other side of the world. Birds, of course, make similar migrations; this is one of the things that fascinates 20-year-old Jim Saddler as he studies birds with borrowed binoculars, noting their species, their habits, their comings and goings. He strikes up a friendship with Ashley Crowther, the young owner of this stretch of Australian farmland, and also with Imogen Harcourt, a middle-aged photographer with a similar passion. But then the 1914 War breaks out, and Jim and Ashley sign up, in different regiments and at different ranks.
There are many books about the Western Front. The ingredients are all much the same: boredom, companionship, carnage. What makes one stand out from another is the quality of the writing, the particular point of view, and whatever aspects of normal life the author chooses to set against the obscenity of war. The last book I read about the trenches, for example, Sebastian Barry's A LONG LONG WAY, was written with a rich Irish poetry, kept its point of view very much at ground level, and set the War against the very different Irish fight for independence back home. Malouf's writing is also poetic, but simpler, and he excels particularly at describing the air above and the land behind the war, as in the following:
"Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary looking gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see the farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land and went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that led to the war."
But it is Malouf's juxtaposition of the battlefield to the Australian nature reserve that is so daring. For there is no possibility of a literal resolution that connects them. Indeed, Malouf seems to avoid following narrative links; Ashley and Jim barely meet again, and the biplane so prominently featured on the cover ultimately serves only to offer Jim a metaphor for his own bird's eye view on life. Yet it is an important metaphor. The two halves of the book portray beauty and destruction with memorable power. But the coherence of the novel as a whole depends upon the final chapter, which returns to Imogen Harcourt watching the birds among the sand dunes. I had to sleep on this and re-read it for it to fully work, but now I see the beauty in her simple understanding of the life that connects both birds and man.
- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing; 1 edition (5 February 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780099273820
- ISBN-13: 978-0099273820
- ASIN: 0099273829
- Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 118 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 89,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)