Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised

Cover image A new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Her last novel, The Gun Room, explored the legacy of war through a photographer and the unwelcome fame endured by one of his subjects. Land of the Living revisits the theme from a different perspective. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence.

Charlie is a veteran of the Battle of Kohima, fought in the Indian province of Nagaland close to Burma’s border. His sleep is broken by nightmares, his days punctuated by flashbacks to the jungle patrol of which he was the sole survivor. Rescued by Naga warriors whose village he lived in for several months, he was taken to a British settlement where he met Jack Hussey, a keen ethnographer and agent of the empire. As Charlie sets about his work, Claire wonders about the things he witnessed in Nagaland, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman. In 1947, three years after Charlie first met him and facing the independence of the only country he has properly known, Jack visits the Ashes. During the night, Claire is woken from her own jungle nightmare by their laughter and wonders what the men can have found to amuse them. By morning Jack has gone, leaving Charlie unburdened and Claire about to give birth. New beginnings are on the horizon.

Shifting occasionally from Charlie’s perspective to Claire’s, Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Much is left unspoken between these two , her apparent light-heartedness disguising her understanding of the chasm between them. Harding manages all this with characteristic deftness, quietly conveying Charlie’s dislocation from the prosaic everyday:

He drew the curtains and tended the fire then sat down in the armchair beside it with the whisky glass in his hand. The room only began to seem inhabited when the dog followed him in.

Much is communicated in a few well-chosen words while her descriptions of both Norfolk and Nagaland are lyrically evocative:

The fog wasn’t coming down again. The night would be clear and cold. The sky towards sunset was becoming unexpectedly lighter, pale turquoise-blue streaks bared in it, the first colour of the day.

With its exploration of the legacy of empire and war, the burden those who fought carry on their return and the silence with which it is often borne both by family and veterans, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

4 thoughts on “Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised”

  1. This sounds wonderful. I find that generation fascinating – what they went through and then what they came home to, and all the rapid societal change they had to contend with after that. It’s going out of living memory now, but hopefully novels like this help keep it alive for people.

    1. I think Harding is comparable to Helen Dunmore in that she’s severely underrated. I agree with you about the generation that went through the war. I think we have them to thank for bringing about much of the positive change that came after such as the welfare state and improved education. They’d accumulated considerably more grit than we possess!

  2. “Redemption and hope”? I think you should read ‘The Gun Room’ again. That book ends in hope but is set twenty years later and features the next generation of the same family and after the tragedy you can feel coming in the later written but earlier set book.

    1. I lent The Gun Room to a friend who had read Land of the Living just a couple of weeks before and she pointed out that connection to me. Interestingly, it’s not mentioned in either the book’s press release or the jacket blurb and my memory is not what it was.

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