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And Such Great Names As These

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by Allen Makepeace

Almost ninety years after the so-called "Great" War came to an end, interest in the subject is as lively as ever. In the intervening years, accounts of the conflict, both fictional and biographical, have been produced and published with hardly a break, and I have read many of these. For this reason, although the topic fascinates me, it is usually with some apprehension that I pick up a new book on the subject. Surely everything must have been said by now, every possible angle explored ad nauseam?

It was a pleasant surprise to find that Allen Makepeace’s novel, And Such Great Names As These, if not exactly ground-breaking, at least provides a fresh slant on the conflict, told in intelligent, uncluttered prose with a strong sense of place. Unfolding the parallel stories of a one-parent family in the north of England and a deserter making his way back from France, the author draws the reader in from the opening paragraphs. The pen-picture of the grim northern town is as far removed from Catherine Cookson as the account of trench warfare is from Sebastian Faulks, and it all rings true.

I was initially unimpressed by the cover information to the effect that the book had won an award; the receipt of an award seldom guarantees a good read. The NAWG award, however, is presented by the National Association of Writers’ Groups, an organisation comprised chiefly of amateur writers. And Such Great Names As These is not a profound study of the human psyche or a diatribe on the pointlessness of war, but a popular novel, and very deserving of such an award. There is no question about where the author's sympathies lie. They rest with the central characters, whose less-than-spotless lives are viewed from the standpoint of 21st century enlightenment. Their intolerant contemporaries are portrayed very unflatteringly; there is little attempt to understand the motives of the bullies and gossips. Why, indeed, should there be?

The story is told through the eyes of Joshua Slater, a ten-year-old boy who looks forward with relish to a career as a miner or a shipyard worker. Joshua’s response to the often illogical behaviour of the adults around him helps to make things happen, not always for the best. Until Dexter’s path crosses that of Joshua and his adoptive mother, their future seems bright. Joshua comes across on times as rather too good to be true. We might excuse this by noting that life in that time and place was so hard that the opportunities for misbehaviour were limited. In a tight corner, Joshua proves handy with his fists, hinting at a not altogether blameless past history; but he has a keen sense of right and wrong, no doubt instilled in him by a strict chapel upbringing.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Buy this book from Amazon

suchgreatnames.jpg

ISBN 978 1905886 388
Matador, 2007
223pp, paperback
Retail price 7.99

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The plot is effortlessly symmetrical, beginning and ending with the background figure of the child-preacher, Billy Moffat. Dexter’s bold and forthright character, forced into deception by the state of near-hysteria forced on him by his experiences at the Western Front, is held up as a contrast to that of his acquaintance "little" Ernie Grayson, as well as to that of commissioned officer Hector Samways and to that of Dexter’s own brother, Henry. Hector’s father, however, is somewhat two-dimensional, as befits the villain of the piece. Other minor characters have an authenticity about them, like the hard-pressed and humourless council official whose job is to escort children to the workhouse, and the elderly German couple whose tearoom no longer attracts any customers. Life is hard for these people, and no one expects anything better.

The conclusion pleased and surprised me, shying away at the last minute from a possible "happy ending", yet not descending into doom and gloom either. Taken as a whole, the book is what is sometimes referred to as "a little gem"; it is a work that manages to be both touching and inspiring, in the simplest possible way. Don’t miss out on it.