According to statistics released by the American Veteran’s Administration, U.S. WWII veterans are dying at the rate of 492 per day. The numbers are likely similar for Canadian service personnel. Either way, in a few years there won’t be many veterans left. Perhaps that is why interest in the Second World War seems to be increasing, whether it be in film or book, fact or fictional.
Montreal author Matthew Murphy (who is originally from Sudbury, Ontario) has written a startlingly good debut novel set in Italy during the latter part of WWII when the Germans are retreating out of Italy as the Allied forces advance slowly northward. A Beckoning War (Baraka Books, 2016) centres around the life of Captain Jim McFarlane, a Canadian Infantry Officer and his struggles, both in war and in love as he has been away from his wife Marianne for over two years now.
Jim comes from a good stable family, the son of a doctor, but chooses teaching as a career. His younger brother Mark (who is single) is in the RAF, causing Jim to consider enlisting himself, much against the wishes of Marianne. “You know, I do think I should join” he tells her at the breakfast table one day. “Jim, you are twenty-nine years old. Even if you did join, do you really think you’d actually fight? You have a home, you have a job, and you have me.” They have only been married a year at this point and she feels he can serve the war effort here on Canadian soil closer to her, but Jim enlists (he “yearns for purpose” and the war beckons, more forcefully than his wife’s pleas). making matters worse, an old university friend of Jim’s persuades him to transfer from Ottawa to Fort York (Toronto) so as to be in the same battalion. The marital strain continues to mount and Jim has to deal with all this primarily by long distance letter writing.
The Strains of Love and War
As I mentioned earlier, this is a startlingly good book, let alone a first novel. Mr. Murphy manages to maintain an even, constant tension in his writing, keeping us firmly in Jim’s mind as he deals with the horrors of warfare, the loneliness of command and the helplessness he feels when it comes to his estranged wife, thousands of miles away. Jim also begins to rely heavily on alcohol in a “Dutch-courage” type of way to stiffen his resolve and lead his troops. At one point, stunned by the fury of battle and indecisive about what to do next, he orders Cooley his batman to find him some alcohol. Cooley reluctantly returns with a flask of rum: “He (Jim) takes two large gulps of the syrupy rum, and as it burns its way down his gullet it kindles a strength within him that brings with it both focus and a deadening of awareness.” Jim is then ready to lead his platoon into battle.
Kirkus Reviews was quite generous in its praise of A Beckoning War stating: “Rendered in beautifully poetic prose…wonderful novel…from an author ready for a glittering literary career.” I cannot find fault with that statement. This book is so realistic, and the emotions are so palpable, whether it is discussing the fighting action, the turmoil going on in Jim’s mind, or his strained conversations with his peeved wife. The section dealing with Jim’s awareness of and his recovery from injuries sustained in battle are simply imaginative and intelligent in their rendition. It is as if the author has become Jim himself, and although too young to have known war, Mr. Murphy writes as if he were there in Italy among all the shelled buildings, dead soldiers, and lines of displaced persons and livestock, having lost everything, moving away from the action, or back to their liberated towns.
This book should be on the ‘to read’ list of those who find the struggle of fighting the ‘enemy within’ of interest. For me, reading A Beckoning War was reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim in this respect: a lone man who must deal with the consequences, seen and unseen of his actions. While it has WWII as the background, it could easily be a different war, or a lucrative job a long distance away, causing a separation of two persons in a relationship, leading to various challenges and life changes.
Baraka Books has what I consider a genuine winner on their hands with A Beckoning War and I sincerely hope this novel (and the author) garner the national recognition they deserve.
A Beckoning War immediately goes on my long list for “The Very Best” Awards for 2016.
Addendum, January 17, 2018: for another excellent review of A Beckoning War, see this one at Consumed by Ink: https://consumedbyink.ca/2018/01/16/a-beckoning-war-by-matthew-murphy/