Guest review: Rachel Edwards on Armistice by Nick Stafford

9781849160230
Quercus, 2011 (Aus)
(also US, UK)

reviewed by Rachel Edwards

Armistice recreates the disorientated, discombobulated world of London post World War One and looks at the effect that war had on the lives of those who survived. It is a semi-mystery, semi-romance novel and it tells the story of Philomena Bligh, seamstress of Manchester.

Philomena is one of thousands of bereaved women. She lost her fiancé, Dan Case, in the war – or so she believes. She has Dan’s letters and travels to London to meet some of the men who befriended him and some who gave orders to him in the trenches of the Western Front. Early in her meetings with these men she discovers that Dan was not killed in the war, but in the moments after the Armistice in 1918. More cruelly she discovers that he was not killed by the enemy, but by his commanding officer over a gambling debt.

Philomena is the hinge on which this story swings. She introduces the reader to an assorted cast of shell-shocked men recently returned from the front. There’s Major James, a nondescript serving officer who seems to be more informed about Dan’s murder than he lets on; Jonathan, the enigmatic cocaine-snorting lawyer and friend of the murdered Dan; and the archetypal ‘baddie’ Anthony Dore, the man whom Jonathan accuses of Dan’s murder.

Anthony is an ugly character, the only surviving brother of three, the one who did not attract a sobriquet and seemed to repel love, according to his father. He has no career, though in the archly classist society of the day is considered a gentleman. He uses his class to get what he wants.

­­­­­­­­­­Philomena and Jonathan are well-drawn characters, each with physical quirks that are noted repeatedly; Philomena draws in the air with her hands, and Jonathan is always reaching for a drink. These help define who they are. Some characteristics, however, are simply unbelievable. For example, Philomena notices a twitch in a character she has literally just met and notes that it signifies the character is lying. It’s a clumsy attribution and one that could be conveyed in a more effective manner. She’s not psychic, though there are some lovely homages to the psychic fads which have recently been articulated beautifully in another novel set post WW1, Chris Womersley’s Bereft.

London was a damaged city; unsure of itself and scarred. It becomes a character in its own right as Philomena finds her way around and reveals it to the reader. Scenes of amputated and emotionally ruined soldiers, bereaved families and an inordinate number of single women are used to describe a city in mourning. Philomena witnesses the attempted suicide of a young soldier in a poignant scene that speaks of the psyche of these young men and of the city.

It is also the portrait of a city that is forging a new identity. There are illicit underground nightclubs and police raids. There is new and exciting music by Eric Satie being played on pianos in the corner of smoky bars, and headiness in the behaviour of those who have been so close to death. There are characters who foreshadow the change in London lifestyle: the gay American art gallery owner, and women who encourage Philomena’s dressing up to attend the aforementioned clubs.

The story develops with unexpected twists and turns and is reasonably well paced. The narrator’s voice and point of view often changes though, sometimes with no link or hint to the reader that there has been a change. There is some clumsy phrasing – yet the dialogue sings. Armistice is Nick Stafford’s first novel, though he has written plays, and he does manage to capture the tone and essence of characters through their dialogue. Some of the descriptions however, would be better as stage instructions: ‘”Luck,” replied Anthony, emphasising the consonants.’

The cover, as is often the case when decisions are made for marketing purposes, seems to target readers of romantic or historical fiction. A wet flagstone path, elegant shoes worn by a green-coated woman. While the romance and the history are present in the book there is also mystery and intrigue.

It is an interesting story that has been told in a mediocre fashion, the characters are likable or hateable enough to inspire affection or disgust in the reader though the stilted prose and shifts between the characters’ points of view detract from these portraits. This is unfortunate as an otherwise entertaining yarn has become collateral to flabby construction and editing.

Rachel Edwards is a broadcaster, blogger and bookseller. She has recently been appointed Emerging Editor of Islet, the online journal for emerging writers and visual artists which has grown from Island, Tasmania’s most established literary journal. She is the Executive Producer of her alter-ego, Paige Turner, who hosts the weekly Book Show on Edgeradio.org.au and blogs at paigelovesbooks.blogspot.com. On Twitter, she is @paigelovesbooks.

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