Reviewed by Christopher Yates
- Paperback, 368 Pages
- ISBN: 9781781590713
- Published: NOV 2012
- Claymore Press
As we move through the centenary anniversary year of the Great War, one would expect the market to become saturated with the memories, untold stories and fiction novels chronicling the exploits of the heroes of both sides. How will one story stand up against the others? Will they approach the subject matter from a similar angle or will somebody step up and offer something different? I’m pleased to say that Coming Home’ by Roy E. Stolworthy offers the latter.
The novel opens in Westminster Abbey, at the grave of an unnamed soldier. A man, Joshua Pendleton, enters the abbey and kneels at the grave. He removes a watch and, whilst placing it on the tomb, he recites the last part of a tribute chiselled into the marble ‘They Buried Him Among The Kings Because He Had Done Good Toward God And Towards His House.’ Then, after looking left and right to make sure he’s alone, he whispers to the unnamed warrior ‘Hello Thomas. How are you this morning? It’s raining outside, as usual. Although I hear the forecast is better for tomorrow’… It’s a beautiful opening. The iconic image, and one reminiscent of the unmarked graves that litter many a battlefield across the European theatre, created by the simple description of an ‘unnamed soldier’ sets you up for the atrocities ahead, the emotional rollercoaster you are about to embark on, and one that raises the questions for later; Who is Thomas? And why is he known only to one man?
The focus then switches back to 1916 and the story starts proper. The plot is a new, clever take on standard war fiction and can be broken down into three acts. Act one: introduces us to our protagonist, Thomas Elkin. Blaming himself for the accidental death of his brother, Thomas enlists in the army, under his brother’s name, with the sole intention of dying a heroic death in combat. Act two: Boot camp. We witness the deconstruction of the boy Thomas Elkin and the re-construction of the man, Archie Elkin. Act three: The war and Thomas’s attempts to immortalise his brother’s name, whist also coming to terms with the changes within himself and his environment.
As a reader, what we are faced with is a harrowing eye witness account of the horrors of the Great War. We learn as Thomas learns and grow as he grows. What starts out as an exciting adventure quickly turns into the nightmare it really was. Through Roy Stolworthy’s use of beautiful prose, we are invited to share the sheer desperation those poor men on the frontline felt and the hopelessness of the task they had undertaken. Through allowing us to know Archie’s secret, we are asked to judge his character and the selfish urges that force him to undertake the most dangerous of missions. He not only puts his own life in danger, but also the lives of his comrades who have come to trust and rely on his leadership.
The character of Thomas/Archie is the back bone of the story. I’ve read too much war fiction (mostly glorified American acts of heroism) where the central character is always cut from the ‘Rambo’ mould, willing and wanting to win the war singlehandedly, and I’m glad to say that with ‘Coming Home’ this is not the case. In Thomas/Archie, Roy Stolworthy has created a character that could be anybody. A character that is an Average Joe off the street, thrust into an environment, who is reacting to that environment and the choices that he subsequently makes. Apart from his desperation for death, he has no qualities that are out of the ordinary and this is what makes him so endearing to the reader. In truth, and trying in vain not to be too patriotic, he embodies the real heroes who stood up to be counted when the time came. As such, you can’t hide form the emotional impact of the ordeals he experiences.
However, this is not to say the story is not without its faults. Parts of the narrative don’t sit well and are a bit out of place; for instance the feeding of the brother to the pigs is totally out of character with how Thomas is portrayed and the death of Corporal Wollard at the end of chapter 4 reads like a bit of a cop out. However, ironically, the problem with the story is the main plot point; Thomas’s attempts at death and his subsequent escapes. What starts out as a heroic deed, quickly descents into an annoyance with comedic overtones. Time after time he faces ever increasing odds and time after time he walks away unscathed. As the novel moves on, the reader quickly realises that only a nuclear warhead is able to end this poor boy’s life, whilst everybody around him drops like flies. Maybe I’m being a bit too flippant in my description, but somebody once said to me that reading a good story is like dreaming a dream. Every time there is a mistake or something doesn’t fit, the illusion is broken and you wake up. Unfortunately, these interludes of Thomas/Archie’s depression is where the illusion breaks. It gets old very quickly and at times I found myself skim reading these passages.
Having said that, ‘Coming Home’ is still a brilliant read and one that I would whole heartedly endorse. It deals with the subject matter in a frank, serious, and realistic way and contains an ending that will leave the reader thinking for many a restless night to come.