I’m an assiduous viewer of Channel 4 News – I’d probably be a happier person if I wasn’t – and have often wondered how it feels to report on the dreadful mess of human misery that is war. I’ve thought the same when looking at those stark images you see in newspapers, some becoming emblematic of particular conflicts. The moral dilemma of bearing witness as opposed to getting stuck in and helping those in distress is an eternal conundrum. And what does it do to those who make it their life’s work? These are the themes that Catherine Hall explores in her moving and thought-provoking novel.
It begins with Jo’s narrative addressed to her ex-lover, Susie. Jo has just returned from Afghanistan, taking refuge in her Aunt Edith’s Brighton flat, now hers since Edith’s death a few weeks ago. She’s in a state of shock, in desperate need of unburdening herself. This has been her second stint in the country. The first was a decade ago, just after 9/11. There have been many wars in between her two visits, many atrocities witnessed, but this time the horror was more personal. Not entirely sure why she had decided to return, Jo settled on a set of photographs about the commonplace domestic violence dealt out to women by their husbands and male relatives in the name of honour, enlisting the help of Rashida freshly graduated from her journalism course. Things did not end well. To distract herself, Jo reads the diary she finds tucked away in her aunt’s desk. It’s the journal of Elizabeth Willoughby who worked alongside the medical staff at Brighton Pavilion where Indian Army casualties were cared for during the First World War, well away from their white British comrades.
It’s a far from uncommon device to have a character stumble across a diary written long ago, then alternate its contents with a present day narrative. It can often be horribly clunky – the worst example I can think of is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – but if done well each can illuminate the other, and Hall manages this beautifully. The strictures on the behaviour of women in Afghanistan are echoed in the forbidding of Elizabeth from nursing Indian soldiers thereby compromising her reputation. Her fiancé’s – to our eyes – obvious shell shock is echoed in the nightmares in which the many atrocities Jo has seen are re-enacted. Historical context is lightly delivered, deftly wrapped into both narratives. Hall’s exploration of the morality of war photography and its effects on those who practice it are vivid and immediate. All this is achieved in an intensely involving story – moving, poignant and often surprising. It’s a novel which succeeds in treating a deadly serious subject in a gripping, humane and thoroughly engrossing way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next.