Neverhome by Laird Hunt

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Reviewed by Harriet

I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic. I stepped across the border out of Indiana into Ohio. Twenty dollars, two salt-pork sandwiches, and I took jerky, biscuits, six old apples, fresh underthings and a blanket too.

There was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.

It’s the American Civil War, and this is Gallant Ash, a brave and fearless soldier, who becomes a folk hero and the subject of a ballad. But Ash Thomson is a woman, though very few people see through her disguise.  Before she signed up she was Constance, married to the gentle, sweet-natured Bartholomew, and living on an Indiana farm.  The two of them have decided that it’s important to defend the Republic, and as ‘he was made of wool and I was made of wire’, Constance is the one to go. And indeed, she proves to be an excellent fighter, brave and courageous. She writes home often to Bartholomew, though she finds the process to be a strange one: ‘It seemed like I was reading the letters of a stranger to a stranger, and I did not like the way this made me feel’. But she also shares her thoughts and feelings with her ‘beautiful and fearsome’ mother, long dead.

So at first, Ash rejoices in her own skill and bravery. But as time goes on, the horrors and the ravages of war affect her more and more, and indeed she suffers herself in many terrible ways, and is betrayed more than once by people she thought she could trust. And so she starts to unravel, her perceptions, thoughts and reactions becoming less and less trustworthy, until it is hard to tell how much is reality and how much the creation of her own troubled mind. She starts to long for home, but will she ever reach it? And what will she find if she gets there?

Neverhome is a truly remarkable novel in so many ways. Of course the story is a fascinating one, and apparently partly based on the real story of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, one of a surprisingly large number of women who disguised themselves in order to fight in the Civil War. And of course it raises questions about war itself: Ash starts out fighting for what she believes to be right, but what she witnesses seems to throw all her fine feelings and aspirations into confusion. But the real joy of the novel is in Ash’s narrative voice, captured with extraordinary clarity and beauty by Laird Hunt. A farm girl with very little education, Ash writes what she sees, thinks and feels with incredible vividness, whether it’s the beauty of a flower (‘the first iris cracking open the fresh purple yolk of its bloom’) or the horrors of the battlefield:

It had been quiet a minute but there was an unsubtle owl flew over the field and the moaning around us set up again. Someone called out to God to come down and kill him. To hit down on him with His great and thunderous hands. They would be spangled about every which way, those weepers and moaners. Just like they had been dropped off God’s clouds.

The novel has been described as an upside-down Odyssey (Penelope goes to fight; Odysseus stays at home), which as an idea seems a bit contrived. However, in scope, subject matter and language, it could easily be called an epic poem, one of great beauty and terrible sadness. Concise and spare, without a wasted word, it had me gripped from start to finish, and is not a book I will easily forget. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Laird Hunt, Neverhome (Chatto & Windus, London, 2015). 9780701188795, 246 pp., hardback.

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