No Man's Land

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

It's the last day of January. How many New Year's resolutions lie in smoldering ruins? I've managed to give new life to two of mine—losing weight and reading seventy books—through a simple change of routine. I'm spending half an hour on the stationary bike every day, half an hour to exercise, clear my mind, and read. I've already managed to blister through three novels this way: Evelyn Waugh's hilarious Scoop, Ready Player One (about which more at another time, perhaps), and the subject of today's post, No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien.

I haven't actually finished No Man's Land yet, but I already want to recommend it. It was a breath of fresh air, after the empty ephemera of Ready Player One, to read a novel that, while imperfect, wants to grapple with real life, with things that matter. 

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No Man's Land is the story of Adam Raine, a London boy whose father, a socialist labor activist, moves himself and Adam to a coal mining town in the north of England. There, Adam's father, a changed man after the tragedy that drove them from London, struggles as a union negotiator to balance the demands of his fellow workers with the realities of mining life and the claims of the mine's owner, Sir John Scarsdale. Adam struggles to fit in; he's a bright, bookish boy and his father works hard to keep him in school and out of the mine. Demagogues and agitators threaten Adam's father's position and the safety of everyone in the mine, and local boys show a natural hostility to Adam. Another tragedy brings the two halves of this story together, and sets Adam's life on a new and unexpected course.

When Adam is taken in by Sir John with the promise of seeing that he completes his schooling and has a chance at an Oxford scholarship, Adam becomes close with Seaton, Sir John's elder son, a principled, good-humored army officer, but falls foul of Brice, Seaton's younger brother, a boy Adam's own age. Brice is conceited, self-absorbed, and entitled. He also aims to marry Miriam, the beautiful daughter of the local parson and the object of Adam's admiration since the day he met her. 

The novel begins in 1900, when Adam is a small boy, and, as the title suggests, the First World War is the ever-present, looming threat to all of this—to Adam's romance with Miriam, to the mine and its workers and their families, to Sir John and his heirs, to Britain, and to the lives of all the characters. When war comes, most of them end up in the trenches. Adam, Seaton, and their peers from Scarsdale end up at the Somme.

I have less than 200 pages to go, and the story has just brought us to July 1, 1916, the awful first day of the British assault on the Somme, a day that saw over 19,000 British soldiers killed, most within the first few hours, and another 38,000 wounded. The author depicts the battle in all its horror, without flinching or holding back. Not all of the characters made it out of that first day--and the Battle of the Somme lasted until mid-November. 

With its class struggle, romantic rivalries, and large cast of workers, housewives, butlers, country parsons, lords, and ladies, No Man's Land teeters on the brink of melodrama. Comparisons to Downton Abbey suggest themselves, but the novel reminds me more of Dickens than contemporary TV. The characters are sympathetically portrayed and well-drawn, and their conflicts with each other feel real. This is especially refreshing in a Games of Thrones era in which everything is resolved with murder, rape, or some combination of the two. 

Most interestingly, and something the publishers have taken full advantage of in promoting the book—the novel is dedicated to JRR Tolkien, the author's grandfather. Simon Tolkien drew on his grandfather's experiences at the Somme as an inspiration, and certain elements of the narrative, such as Adam's chaste, dutiful pursuit of Miriam, reflect real moments from Tolkien's life. The novel is mostly fiction, the plot and characters mostly fictitious, but its connection to a remarkable real life man lends the novel a richness that elevates the book.

I may have more thoughts when I've finished the book. As I've said, it's imperfect, but it's very, very good, a refreshingly old-fashioned novel that realistically and sympathetically depicts a crucial historical moment through the lives of ordinary people.