This was the second book I read from the long list of the Desmond Elliott Prize. (I’m chairing the judges this year).
An excellent and elegant novel written with patience and authority, Robert Allison’s debut takes the reader to the pitiless desert, in which man’s nature finds neither ordered society to disguise it, nor compassion to console it.
Allison makes his protagonist an amnesiac. His fellow travellers are deserters from Britain’s demoralised army in the darkest months before El Alamein. Thus there is no chain of command to guide our man, no mission to direct him, and few perceptual cues to help him recover the memories he has lost in the explosion that opens the story.
All he has to go on is a collection of letters – written to parents and sweethearts and intended to be read only in the event of their authors’ deaths. Why is our hero carrying these? What is his connection with the dead men? Can he piece together his own identity from theirs? Most hauntingly of all, might he have been involved in their deaths?
We realise we are dealing with an exploration of human fallibility wrapped up in a mystery, and the effect is both thrilling and unsettling. The novel appeals to our high and low instincts simultaneously, and I felt it worked wonderfully on both levels.
Of course the amnesiac protagonist can often work well – since No-one is a readymade Everyman – but the novelist must try hard to make the device his or her own. I submit that Allison succeeds for three reasons.
First, his use of the shifting desert as the story’s unreliable substrate is a clever context for a story about memory and identity. This is underpinned by some wonderful writing. I was thrilled by lines like: “The ground otherwise so insistently regular that the same expanse seems to repeat itself over and again, nature having lost its will to miscellany.”
Second, Allison’s very compact central cast encompasses enough character to tell a complex story. The brutish Swann and the wheedling Brinkhurst do more than simply epitomise the soldier and the officer class. They form a dipole – their forces of attraction and repulsion beginning to awaken our protagonist’s memory of self – and yet they themselves are bipolar, driven by contradictory currents. As Allison writes, “In seeking one’s own identity it should come as no surprise to unearth more than a single nature.”
Third, Alison succeeds by keeping the dialogue terse, the emotional range narrow, and the prose consistent and anchored to realism. He writes well about landscape and men’s journey through it, and at times I was reminded of the American novelists’ treatment of the West – in that the hardness of the country renders complex moral questions down to harsh and necessary decision points.
This is what makes a compelling novel, surely: that it acknowledges both the subtlety of our nature and life’s pernicious habit of making us choose. Left to our own devices, we would be everyone. How much harder to have to become someone.