No Man’s Land | Simon Tolkien | 2016 | HarperCollins | 566p | Review copy | Buy the book
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate date to post a review of No Man’s Land than today, 1 July 2016, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which forms the powerful, overwhelming heart of this wonderful novel.
In the first years of the 20th century, Adam Raine struggles to thrive in the face of poverty, reinforced by tragedy. He experiences London at its worst, and is even threatened by its worst as the workhouse beckons from the shadows. Adam and his politically militant father have no choice but to head for the pit village of Scarsdale in Yorkshire where they have relations among the oppressed miners. Adam is an intelligent young man and his father is determined that he should have every chance – under the sky and not in the lethal depths of the pit. But yet again the fates conspire against Adam, marking him always as an outsider. Later, when Adam finally feels hope on earning his scholarship to Oxford, it is to be short lived. It is 1914 and England is at war and nothing will ever be the same again.
It’s as if everything in Adam’s life is leading up to the Somme in July 2016. His friendships with the young miners, as well as with the son of the pit owner who lives in the big house, lead up to their dependence on each other in the trenches, resulting so many times in grief and pain. So few who go over the top will survive, or at least emerge unscathed in body and mind. But it also affects Adam’s great love. He fell in love at first sight with Miriam, the village parson’s daughter, but is that relationship able to withstand the trauma of war, especially with the pit owner’s youngest son Brice so ready to snatch the prize?
No Man’s Land is a substantial novel and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Big themes and big emotions are served best by a novel that the reader can immerse themselves in over several days and there is a lot going on here. It features several distinct sections, although these can really be abbreviated to before the war and during the war. The Adam who fights in the trenches has very little in common with his earlier self but that doesn’t mean that his life before the war was drama-free. The sections inside the pit are as powerful as anything that follows during the war sections.
The writing is beautiful, sometimes deceptively simple and, as a result, packing an emotional punch of some size. I cried several times reading this, twice even while on the bus, and not all of those tears fell during the war sections. Great grief is experienced and expressed. The support,physical as well as emotional, of comrades is life-changing. And then there’s the horror of trench warfare and how utterly diabolical that is and we’re spared none of it. We get a tiny glimpse of the unbelievable stress and fear and it brings us so close to Adam and his brothers-in-arms.
I didn’t get along so well with the chapters that deal with the love affair between Adam and Miriam, nor did I care as much for the rivalry between Adam and the odious Brice. These chapters felt conventional and out of place when compared to the rest of the book and the characters of Miriam and Brice (and the dastardly footman) seemed two-dimensional in comparison to Adam, his father, the miners and their families, and Adam’s comrades. There are so many individual stories in these pages, families and people changed by events in the mine or in the trenches. They are all so memorable and colourful, at times heartbreakingly sad, occasionally amusing, but all very real. I much preferred the time spent on these people, their stories and their role in Adam’s changing character.
I love a grand saga that immerses me in the lives of people, their families and a community. No Man’s Land brings these together perfectly against a background of pitiless war and the injustice, hardship and cruelty of mining during the early 20th century. We spend time on the front and down the pit but contrasting with it always are memories of life continuing above ground or in the relative safety of the British countryside. These memories taunt the men that suffer but how they comfort them as well. Interestingly and movingly, there are occasional references in the novel to future events, informing us that Adam will look back on this time when he’s in France.
No Man’s Land has such a power to it and despite its themes and darkness is always such a pleasure to read, the pages turning themselves. It brings the events and sacrifice of 100 years ago to the forefront of our minds and straight to our hearts and reminds us that we must never forget.