Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
A novel on the Second World War in 2018 may seem a little anachronistic—hasn't everything worth saying been said about this war? To his credit, author Matthew Murphy does offer a new take on this oft-told story. And not just by focusing on the lesser-known Canadian contribution to the campaign in Italy but also by providing convincing insights into the motivations and thinking of men and women of the war-time generation. Most importantly, he pulls off the universalism in soldiering, with all the human frailties that go with it.
A Beckoning War revolves around one week in the life of Jim McFarlane, an officer in the Irish Regiment of Canada. In September 1944, the “Irish” have engaged German forces north of the Foglia River in Italy. Their objective is to take the city of Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The terrain is fiercely defended by seasoned German troops under experienced military leadership. The Canadian troops are fighting alongside the British 8th Army, both groups led by men steeped in tradition, determination, a sense of honour and a disdain for cowardice. Jim McFarlane, recenftly promoted to captain, commands Able Company, a battle-tested infantry group. The company has seen several small victories since landing in Italy, but these have come at a high price and the unit is critically undermanned. The big push on Rimini is imminent, and McFarlane, suffering from battle fatigue, is struggling to hold it together. If the exactitude of war were not enough, McFarlane suffers doubts about his marriage. Through several flashback chapters, we learn of his courtship with the very young Marianne Temple, their marriage and his decision to join the army over Marianne's objections. The young woman has now waited years for her husband to return. Her patience is wearing thin; her letters colder and less frequent. The dangers of the coming battle and the foreboding of marital failure work in unison to hold the readers' attention.
Stylistically, the novel is very well done. The plot is told through McFarlane's perspective, albeit in the third person. This enables the readers to experience the daily lives of ordinary infantrymen serving in large mechanized armies where gains on the ground are not made by heroic infantry charges but by intensive artillery barrages. Only then are the ground troops sent in to secure small pieces of territory, and in turn, they become the target for massive retaliatory shelling. For McFarlane and his men, who live through this by hiding for days under pews in a centuries-old church, there is very much the sense of waiting to be killed and not being able to do much about it. More cynically, we might be led to believe that the whole point of the exercise is to place men in vulnerable positions for the sole purpose of drawing fire so that the enemy will exhaust its munitions. For readers hoping for an action-packed thriller replete with hand-to-hand combat and jumping in and out of trenches, this novel may disappoint; albeit there is a dose of that in the closing chapters.
Murphy's tale is one of comradeship clothed in death and life-changing injuries. It is also a commentary on the thin line between courage and cowardice. In it, strong young men die, becoming ghosts accompanying their comrades who are ordered to march on, and those who are only crippled by their wounds serve as a constant reminder of what the coming battles might bring. Pride and self-confidence cede to self-doubt, and our protagonist, Jim McFarlane, begins to lose his grip, turning to alcohol to drown his fear.
While this novel could have easily been turned into an anti-war plaidoyer, it was not. Instead, Murphy carefully chose to preserve and honour the spirit of the Canadian soldier. There is a certain nostalgic tone to Murphy's description of how McFarlane and his comrades remain infused with the belief that they are doing the right thing: to defeat fascism and end the occupation of much of Europe by Germany and its allies. The wanton looting of dead enemy soldiers, the vast destruction of Italian towns and villages and even the extrajudicial execution of a wounded German soldier are portrayed as collateral issues. In this, Murphy offers us the mindset of an earlier generation when wars were seen not only as just but essential to preserving what is right and good in the world, and the writing of the annals of history belonged to the victorious, and the victorious alone. While certain aspects of Murphy's work might not appeal to those who have long since left behind those beliefs, its realistic portrayal of military campaigns, everyday soldier life and insights into the thinking of the Canadian wartime generation are indeed very well done and are the mark of a mature writer.
A Beckoning War is published by Baraka Books.