The title of Mari Strachan’s second novel is as intriguing as the title of her first and it is taken from the first stanza of Robert Grave’s poem To Bring the Dead to Life.
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
The “dead man” is World War I survivor Davey, tormented by his experiences in the trenches, which he subconsciously re-enacts each morning. His wife, Non (Rhiannon) who is broken-hearted by his refusal to be her husband when he returns, determines to meet the woman with whom Davey says he had an affair in an attempt to understand what it is that has destroyed her life. In so doing she discovers more about herself than she ever bargained for and must come to terms not only with Davey’s past but also with her own.
The 3rd-person narrative is told from Non’s point-of-view. Entirely fitting given that a) there are as many secrets in her past as there are in her husband’s and b) it is Non’s journey of discovery. It is an eventful one beginning with Non’s childhood, through the early sunny days of her marriage to the time of darkening clouds when war is on the horizon and her husband brings a child (with an uncanny ressemblance to himself) to the house for her to raise along with the two children from his first marriage. (Non is unable to have children due to a lifelong heart condition.) Post-war, contrary to expectations, the clouds become black and thundery. Non’s quest is to blow them away, to restore her dead-man-walking to life. At the same time she unexpectedly performs the same miracle on herself.
Strachan’s prose not only breathes life into her characters, including a rich array of subsidiary personages, she also resurrects a world gone-by through her attention to detail and occasional comic flourishes. Washing day with an automatic washing machine simply isn’t the same! Strachan’s fondness for her characters is obvious even when they are less than sympathetic. These are human beings, warts and all, and the dramas involving Non’s multi-generational family is very, very absorbing.
The plotting isn’t entirely successful, however. Strachan sets up a number of conflicts, many of which come to an unconvincing resolution. (The way Davey remembers the truth about his affair for example.) While the secret behind Davey’s traumatic re-enactments rings true, it does not appear that the circumstances of Ben Bach’s death could ever remain a secret. The military authortiies would surely have seen to that, wouldn’t they?
I found that question distracted me somewhat from the bittersweet ending, about which I shall reveal nothing other than it cleverly remains faithful to the narrative arc of Graves’s inspirational poem.
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.