MALCOLM FORBES Star Tribune
“Two Storm Wood” by Philip Gray; WW Norton & Company, 352 pages, $28.95.
Many novels are set in the final days or aftermath of World War II, especially among the rubble and ruins of a defeated Berlin. In contrast, novelists dealing with the First World War tend to avoid the end of the conflict, preferring to focus on the starting point and the collapse of the old orders, or on the heat of battle and the horrors of the war of the trenches.
British writer Philip Gray has done something refreshing with his new novel. “Two Storm Wood” contains the strange flashback to the military events of the First World War. However, the book is mainly set in 1919, several months after the end of hostilities and the signing of the armistice.
Rather than telling a war story with a soldier at its center, Gray crafted a historical thriller in which a brave heroine sets out to find answers on the empty battlefields of the Western Front.
Amy Vanneck discovers that her fiancé, Captain Edward Haslam of the 7th Manchesters, is missing. Rather than sit idly by waiting for news, she travels to northern France to find out what happened to him and, if necessary, give him a proper burial in a marked grave. It’s a bold move for a well-bred woman, who until now has been forced to lead a sheltered life.
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“A young woman at your station doesn’t spend her time cutting up bodies, living or dead,” her mother once told her, thwarting her plan to study medicine.
Such an upbringing could have prepared Amy for the carnage she witnesses during her grisly fact-finding mission. First, she meets Captain James Mackenzie and his band of war-weary, battle-scarred volunteers who are engaged in the grim task of recovering, identifying and putting to rest the many bodies scattered across the landscape. ravaged.
Then her search for Edward takes a different turn when 13 mutilated bodies are located under a German strongpoint called Two Storm Wood. This is proof of a brutal war crime. It soon becomes clear, however, that the killing hasn’t stopped and a murderer is still at large.
Gray’s novel succeeds on several levels. It is carefully researched and tightly plotted. Amy’s detective work – tracking down survivors, sifting through testimonies, venturing underground and reassessing the man she loves – makes for absorbing reading. There are obscure stories of opium addiction and raids on enemy trenches, as well as a range of atmospheric scenes. Throughout it all, there is a diabolical double mystery: what happened to Edward, and who committed the atrocity?
The novel is a kind of thriller. But it’s also a thought-provoking drama that regularly strikes a number of serious notes about the inhumanity of man and the traumatic effects of conflict. As Edward reminds us, “War poisons everything it does not destroy”.
Malcolm Forbes has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.