This is one of those novels about which there was a good deal of excited chatter in my neck of the Twitter woods so I approached it with a degree of caution. A few chapters in and any concerns that it might have been overhyped were quashed. It opens in 1943. John Easley finds himself marooned on the Aleutian island of Attu after his plane has gone down. One of the crew, a young man barely out of his teens, has survived with him.
Conditions on the island are atrocious – dangerously cold, little or no shelter or food besides a cave and what they can forage. Easley is a journalist who has finagled his way round the news blackout surrounding the Japanese-occupied islands, donning his brother’s Canadian Air Force uniform and assuming his identity. Young Karl makes clear his resentment but realises that a better chance of survival lies in unity of purpose. Meanwhile, Helen who parted with Easley on bad terms, is desperate to find the whereabouts of her husband, conceiving a plan to travel to the Aleutians to look for him despite many obstacles put in her way. Their stories are told in alternating narratives as Easley grapples with loneliness, starvation and a brutal environment while dodging the Japanese forces just a stone’s throw away, and Helen makes her way from Seattle to Alaska, posing as an entertainer performing for the troops, casting around for clues, never giving up.
I’m a huge fan of the dual narrative. Well managed it’s a clever device for instilling suspense but it’s all too easy for it to fall flat on its face. Brian Payton deftly avoids this, balancing Easley and Helen’s very different stories beautifully while slowly inching them together. The writing is restrained, a little clipped and largely unadorned which suits his subject well, yet there are phrases that shine out – plovers ‘dutifully march along like businessmen late for a meeting’, ‘the ache in his jaw bullies all memory’ when Easley tries to distract himself from his rotten molar. Both their plights are intensely moving: Easley finds previously unthinkable ways to survive, both physically and emotionally, while Helen steadfastly believes her husband is alive, despite all evidence to the contrary, remaining heroically determined to find him no matter what it takes. There is a coincidence at the end – which, of course, I’m not going to reveal – that feels like a step too far but given all that has gone before it’s easy to forgive.
So, I’ve read another war novel despite saying that I wouldn’t for some months although it has to be said that the intensity of Easley and Helen’s stories are such that the war becomes something of a side-show until the novel nears its end. I knew little or nothing about the Aleutians, their part in the war or otherwise, I’m sorry to say but I learnt that the indigenous people were treated shamefully, interned in the same way as the Japanese Americans memorably portrayed in Maureen Lindley’s A Girl Like You. Who says fiction doesn’t teach you anything?