Translated by Sam Taylor
Review by Gill Davies
Having become rather jaded with the predictability of the crime fiction genre and wearied by the sheer number published, I’ve been interested to explore non-British novels. They may not transform the standard narrative elements but the setting can be fresh and intriguing. So I was very interested in a French writer, Antonin Varenne, I’d not come across before. Then I found that Retribution Road is a historical novel with a British focus and wondered if I would be disappointed. I wasn’t: it isn’t Spiral but it’s an extraordinary novel with much to offer general readers as well as crime fiction fans.
The spark for the plot is a Dirty Dozen-type mission in 1852 undertaken by a group of soldiers employed by the East India Company during the Anglo-Burmese War. The men, trouble-makers or criminals, are all products of the brutality of the British Army and are coerced into the mission then betrayed. As prisoners they are tortured leaving mental and physical scars that remain throughout their lives. Only ten of them emerge from the jungle after the war, largely thanks to the fearless and stubborn resistance of their leader. He is a sergeant with a history of violence and the novel’s central character, Arthur Bowman. Returning to London he soothes his damaged psyche and mutilated body with the constant consumption of drugs and booze. He is a hard, isolated man who – naturally – becomes a London policeman working on the docks. On patrol, he is taken to see a body found in the sewers which has been mutilated exactly as he and his fellow prisoners were. The assumption is that one of them must be the murderer. In a cover-up designed to conceal the purpose and protect the instigators of the original mission, Bowman himself becomes a suspect. This, and the dark memories that haunt him, leads him to investigate the crime by himself and to pursue the man he suspects across London, Britain and finally the United States.
Bowman’s journey is vividly described and it’s clear that Varenne has done an impressive amount of research. We encounter London in 1858 during the “Great Stink” when the Thames became a foul sewer and cholera struck the city. Then there are the women garment workers in New York whose demonstration is broken up by police firing into the crowd. In search of the murderer, Bowman visits a dying Utopia whose inhabitants have been cheated by corrupt officials and sold unworkable land. The American dream is a nightmare of slavery, genocide, and finally Civil War. All this is fascinating, at least as gripping as the narrative of search and retribution. Varenne’s attention to detail is remarkable – we learn about different types of guns, the ships used on Atlantic crossings, the California Gold Rush, taming and breeding wild American horses, Thoreau and Darwin, and much more. In an online interview, Varenne has said that “In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company?” The detail may be unnoticed by the reader and it is always effectively integrated into the narrative.
And that narrative is an exciting mix of generic elements that includes a mystery/whodunnit strand; an adventure story with an epic journey across America; the search for a violent serial killer; and a slow-growing love story. On the way Bowman encounters political corruption and state-approved violence, and many forms of social injustice and division. There are few women in the novel but it is never a celebration of macho masculinity or physical violence. The author has deliberately not revealed the details of the torture endured in Burma or the horrific assaults perpetrated by the murderer. They remain unspeakable and would be unnecessary since it is their effects that matter. Indeed, the novel is in part an examination of a ruthless, tough masculine identity, how it is sustained, and the damage it does to the individual in denying warmth, connection and personal understanding. At times it can seem that endurance and survival are all that Bowman (and many of those he meets) can hope for. However, he not only survives but develops in the course of his journey – in particular through acknowledging his feelings for a French woman he met in Utopia with whom he has fallen in love. So the novel becomes a story of redemption rather than retribution, of the healing of scars and building of a genuinely new world. It’s a really original and enthralling read.
Antonin Varenne, Retribution Road, translated by Sam Taylor (MacLehose Press: London,2018). 9780857053732, 525 pp., paperback.
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