In the dying days of the first world war a squad of British soldiers with orders to undertake a highly dangerous river-crossing wile away the days before the attack by gambling. A greenhorn lieutenant eager for his first taste of action sows dissent among the men. One of them is killed, his legacy a pawnbroker's ticket. The soldiers are all representative types: the 'old sweat', the gay couple, the captain weighed down by his responsibilities, the coward, the wide boy,
In modern-day Edinburgh, Solomon, grandson of the officer in charge of the squad, tries to find the heir to an old man who has died in a nursing home, his clue being a pawnbroker's ticket. His search takes him to a foundling home in Northumbria.
The story shuttles between these two narratives; there are also snippets telling what happened to some of the soldiers after the war.
I found the first world war storyline a very slow build. One knew at once that someone (maybe more than one) had died because that is given ion the very first page. This hook was necessary because the soldiers did nothing for a long time except gambling and worrying and squabbling. This was tremendously authentic and the interplay between the characters was fascinating, but it was slow.
The modern storyline was significantly more surreal, though narrated with everyday and sometimes gritty reality. A trio of women sitting around a coffin appear at the start and the end. Solomon, in debt to a loan shark, escapes prison because a police officer wants him to do them a favour; I failed to understand why, nor why he had been breaking and entering in the first place. On his journey south to find the heir he seems to have a charmed existence, turning up evidence wherever he goes and never questioning the most obscure clues. Characters from the first-world-war story keep cropping up in their descendants and coincidences abound, including resonances into his own murky past. Companions (a dog and a schoolboy) join him for portions of his quest.
A Hero's Journey? (contains spoilers)
This, I think, is the clue to this part of the book. It is a quest, a version of the 'hero's journey'. This is a story structure archetypal to myth. The classic version contains twelve parts:
Ordinary World describes the status quo ante of the hero. Solomon is an Heir Hunter working in Edinburgh. His 'ordinary world' involves a night in the cells for 'breaking and entering'. The dismissal of the case leads to ...the Call to Adventure when the case gets dismissed but Solomon refuses the call & Meets the Mentor: by running off, filled with self-doubt, but he is picked up by the police officer involved in the case who is a sort of mentor.
He gains his first 'companion' on the quest (a dog) and begins the quest by leaving Edinburgh. This is the moment when he crosses the threshold, being followed by enemies (Duncan and Dodds) and encountering helpers (the genealogist in the church, Eddie Jackson and the boy archivist in the school). There is a feel, as we get further from Edinburgh, that we are entering a shadowland which isn't quite as real as Edinburgh. He is now supposed to undergo ordeals and tests. These may be his recollections of his father's death and his time at the foundling school, during which he is responsible for a boy who drowns (and is, perhaps, resurrected). These memories are, perhaps, his approach to the inmost cave, which includes a bear-death experience, in which he discovers at least a degree of self-knowledge. By now he understands the family relationships so he can return to Edinburgh to find the last relative of his quest which will enable him to claim his reward.
But he now has to return to the house where he started, reencountering the three grieving women and the aunt who isn't an aunt (a very mythic title). He goes to the corpse and discovers that the money he has been chasing (a) originated with his grandfather (b) is 'blood money' (c) has gone missing and (d) when it does turn up it turns out to be in non-legal tender. This is the final encounter with the enemy in which enlightenment is finally given (the Return with the Elixir).
I;m not convinced I have mapped the plot correctly; I am sure that there are intended to by mythic resonances in this novel.
The soldiers story might also be regarded in mythic terms. They are fighting a war but have arrived in a sort of pocket where the fighting ceases (although they still fight amongst themselves). More than once this is referred to as an 'Eden' and the tensions between them might be regarded as a type of fall, although there are no women. Furthermore, all these characters are, from the point of view of Solomon, dead so they are, as it were, already in heaven and therefore have purely spiritual presences.
In addition to this use of a mythic archetypal structure, the book is divided into seven sections (entitled) and is prefaced with the Solomon Grundy rhyme which are presumably meant to match.
Some memorable moments:
- "Some men were born to give instruction and others to take it. That's just the way it is." (The Debt, 1918, 2)
- "Heir Hunting was full of false trails, but Solomon knew from experience that there was never a dead end on a family tree, only another branch to explore." (The Pawn, 2016, 2)
- "Edinburgh, a city in which one often reached the destination one wanted, without ever quite understanding the route." (The Bet, 2016, 3)
- "What was it about a society that called them heroes ... when all it ever did was use boys as fodder for the guns." (The Charge, 2016, 1)
February 2021, 506 pages
|This review was written|
by the author of Motherdarling
This book was a present to me from Lucy and Alexa via The Beautiful Book Company