‘Back at home, he had often dreamt about the person he might be one day.’
Egypt, 1941. Corporal William Marsh, aged 21, is saved from enemy fire by a young man he thinks he recognises. Could it be James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney? James disappears. William is saved, and then is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert. He is also given a private directive to find a soldier who has gone AWOL. The soldier? James Kelly. William is convinced it is his childhood friend.
William tracks down James, who has had an accident, and is recovering in the home of a local family.
‘How can we get by, James asked himself, when so much of life is beyond our control, when so much of it is unknowable.’
And while James recovers, and William learns about himself, the family James is staying with has its own secrets and challenges. Two separate stories: William’s work with his battalion, James’s recovery. James, although injured, is comfortable in his own skin. William is trying to conform to his father’s expectations. We learn about a childhood friendship that was ripped apart, about the differing expectations of parents.
‘The boy who had become a man who had become a soldier who had saved him.’
James and William fall in love (or perhaps they were always in love, but William hadn’t fully realised it). But James cannot remain hidden for ever: his presence in the home of Yetta and Ernst Hillen and their daughter Anna is dangerous for them as well as for him. Courage takes many forms. Yetta says, to James:
‘…there are three types of courage. There is the courage to stay the course. There is the courage to admit this is not for me. And then there is the courage to love. The wise person knows which type of courage they need, and when and why.’
This is a novel about bravery, courage and love. It is also a novel about how we define masculinity, and strength.
I was torn, reading this novel, between reading quickly to find out how it would end, and reading slowly to reflect. Imagine the challenges faced by two men in love at a time when such love was either ignored or punished. Imagine the challenges faced by all in situations of war. Men, according to William’s father, should behave in certain ways. And sons can be sacrificed in war. James’s mother wants her son to be true to himself. Both men will make sacrifices: one in order to conform, the other in order to stay safe. But neither can be complete in the separate worlds they occupy.
And so, we move towards the ending. By this stage I cared very much about James and William. I also cared about the Hillens. I finished the novel. Life is complex, love and refuge are important.