Land of the Living, by Georgina Harding (Bloomsbury £16.99)

Review by Richard Strachan

Over several restrained, poetic novels, Georgina Harding has carved out a space for herself as one of the most incisive explorers of physical adversity and its psychological effects. In her debut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, the eponymous 17th century whaler forces himself through a year of brutal isolation in the Arctic circle; Painter of Silence turns an unswerving gaze on the tragedy of the Second World War in Romania, while her most recent book, The Gun Room, dwells on the post-traumatic stress of soldiers in the Vietnam War, as seen through the lens of a British photojournalist. In each of these books, Harding’s graceful style and self-control illuminate the crushing weight of history on the individual, and how different strategies for survival can cause a lifetime of pain and regret.

In Land of the Living, a book that at times recalls Michael Ondaatje in its poetic attention to unusual details and unspoken desires, Harding follows Charlie Ashe, a young British officer recently returned from service in India and Burma during the Second World War. Trying to reconnect to the landscape of his childhood, Charlie has taken his young wife Claire to the Norfolk countryside, where he intends to farm the land and put the war behind him. As Claire adjusts to farm life and to her husband’s obvious desire for solitude, Charlie tentatively opens up about what happened to him in the jungle; from the ambush that killed the other members of his patrol, to the weeks he spent delirious with fever as he was looked after by the indigenous Naga tribes. ‘Tell it straight,’ Charlie thinks, desperate to unburden himself. ‘Time now in a farmer’s winter.’ But while he can tell her about the beauty and terror of the Indian and Burmese landscapes, how ‘the dark crowded forest canopy dropped away into cloud’ so high up among the jungled mountains, even how the battlefield of Kohima looked after the Japanese army’s stunning defeat (‘the torn earth, the splintered trees’), Charlie can’t bring himself to tell her the full story. He gives her details of the ‘Shangri-la’ of the Naga village, how the women blacken their teeth to make themselves look more beautiful, and how the men still practise head-hunting, but while Claire seems both entranced and repelled by his stories, Charlie’s reticence hides deeper truths that he cannot share. While Claire sees his time amongst the Naga as a purgatory before his return to civilisation, for Charlie it was something more akin to a refuge; a glimpse of a different way of life, more brutal in many ways, but more noble and seductive in others. At the core of his trauma is also the truth about the ambush that killed his comrades, including Walter, a Norfolk gamekeeper who was friends with Charlie’s uncle. In Charlie’s mind the Japanese ambush becomes almost preordained; retribution for the British soldiers’ momentary lapse into the savagery that characterised the jungle war.

‘War’s a way of being, isn’t it?’ says Jack Hussey, the district commissioner to whom the Naga took Charlie once he recovered from his illness. Visiting the farm after the war, when Indian independence has made his own position obsolete, Hussey seems equally adrift as Charlie. ‘It’s like a religion. It brings people together, gives shape and purpose to everything. And life’s not the same when it's gone.’ For Harding, the loss of this guiding purpose, no matter how unpleasant it may have been at the time, informs not just her characters’ psychology but also the structure of her prose. Thoughts are always tentative, hesitantly expressed and quickly drawn back, before being reframed in a different form. The novel moves in eddies and swirls, casting backwards and forwards from the jungle to the farm, to the stories Charlie tells as well as the realities he tries to obscure. The present is always lit by the past, cast in its shadow, as the past is always more resonant from the perspective of the future. Land of the Living is a poised and carefully crafted novel of powerful, submerged emotions, taking an under-explored aspect of Britain’s war and finding in it something graceful and strange, mythic as well as deeply embedded in the brute physicality of existence.