Cover Image: Land of the Living

Land of the Living

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Member Reviews

4.5 stars

With hand on heart, I can say that this is one of the most achingly beautiful, and also most heart-breaking, novels that I’ve read. Our protagonist is Charlie Ashe, a farmer turned British soldier in Burma (now Myanmar) in World War II. In one of two intertwining storylines, we see him wandering in the Burmese jungle after losing his patrol, dazed by its vastness and beauty, even as he reels from the slaughter he’s witnessed. Alongside this story, we skip ahead a year or two and see Charlie again, after his return home to England. He has married his sweetheart and started a new life with her on a Norfolk farm, and yet he still finds himself struggling to come to terms with the trauma of his wartime experiences. The Charlie who has come back from Burma is not the same man who went off to fight, but can he, and his wife Claire, manage to find peace in the aftermath of tragedy? These two strands are woven beautifully together, but the real star in this book is Harding’s writing – eloquent and elegant – which gracefully probes questions of trauma, loss and memory, inviting us to think about survivor’s guilt, the strain of bearing witness, and how those left at home can never truly comprehend.

"They had been sent to fight in a place of cloud. Sometimes the cloud was above them and other times it was below them as if the ground on which they stood was floating, as if they had come to an island and the cloud was the sea. It was a place none of them had ever heard of and he did not think that the Japs would have heard of it either."

Charlie and his battalion have come halfway around the world, and further still, tracking up into the north of India and then over the border into Burma, leaving behind the few familiar comforts of the British regime. They have been sent to fight and die in a land of mist, where shapes appear and vanish in the green-scented jungle. But why? They have no connection to this land, little of which has even been mapped, and the same is true of the men they’ve been sent to fight. They are all here because some generals, somewhere, have drawn lines on a map that must be defended. Harding shows us little of the wider army: we see Charlie either alone or, briefly, with the handful of men on his patrol. They are already traumatised and terrified, wandering in this strange forest with its damp leaves and distant, eerie noises. The few Japanese soldiers they meet are similarly disorientated, panicked, and bewildered. In this sprawling jungle, on the roof of the world, Charlie and his companions are no longer representatives of a particular army, but human beings dwarfed by nature. The mist, and the sudden dizzying glimpses of valleys and peaks, help to create a hallucinogenic vision of a world where borders and lines on a map no longer matter. When Charlie stumbles alone into the wilderness, he is given a vision of a world that’s simpler and more ancient – though not, by any means, less violent.

The jungle may be unmapped, but it’s not deserted. Half-feverish, Charlie encounters the Naga – people who’ve been described to him (by colonial officials) as primitive savages – who care for him, without any links of language or culture. It is a simple act of kindness from one human being to another. And as Charlie lies there, in this strange village, hidden high in the peaks like Shangri-La (as he explains it later), he clings to the sense of unreality, a notion of being safe and out of time, in this magical secluded place. Harding’s poetical flair is at its most gorgeous in describing the village’s setting: ‘an opalescence and then a glimpse of vivid green, a notion of order, that vanished as soon as he saw it… green terraces, neatly scalloped and composed about a shining ribbon of river.’ Charlie feels as though he has stepped out of his life: here he simply exists, experiencing a world ‘without name or place or time… only immediacies, moments‘. Here is the enchantment of Harding’s novel: it is a book about war which conveys its horrors not so much in explicit description, but in showing us the thirst that it provokes for peace, kindness, affection, and simplicity.

And then Charlie returns home. Not only does he have to deal with the guilt of surviving something that killed so many of his companions, he has to find a way to bridge the gap between ‘past’ and ‘present’ with his new wife. When he emerges from the jungles, having been feared dead, it’s as though he has to relearn everything about who he is. He puts off writing to his fiancée, Claire, ‘trying to find the voice in which he spoke to her, whatever voice it was he had at home.’ It seems impossible that he can ever recapture the bond he once had with her. But he is British, and it is expected of him, and he must try – even though, in this age without therapy or understanding, it seems so very, very hard. And Claire, when they’re finally ensconced on their farm, tries so hard to do the right thing, but she, like Charlie, is very young and is struggling to adapt to married life: ‘they had found themselves here, full stop, the two of them at once living these fixed adult lives. But that was what one did, nowadays, wasn’t it, now that the war was over and life lay so plain ahead?‘

But nobody tells you how to deal with a husband who can’t open up emotionally, and how to make a house a home when it’s full of emptiness. Claire must learn to be patient and so very, very gentle; even as a fury simmers inside her. Why can’t he share with her what happened? She’s acutely, angrily conscious of the fragility of their world, as precarious as the pyramid of tins that she finds herself examining, with a flair of destructive intent, at the grocer’s. It was all meant to work. He would come home and she would fix him, with her love and support, and all would be well. How can it be that certain doors now cannot be closed, while others, which once seemed the only possible doors, now seem so very hard to open? Meanwhile Charlie, whose long winter walks, and hard days of farm work provide scant relief from his trauma, remains closed, resenting the push for information, unable to neaten up his memories for tidy public consumption:

"They pounced on information when it came out, as if they wanted to know it all. But they didn’t really want that. They wanted the story but not the truth. That would be better for them. If they had only that, then they could put it in black and white, and lay it aside and call it history, and go back to their lives, and life could go on much as it had gone on before. The waters would close, and those who had come back, who knew the difficult things, would be only driftwood bobbing about on the surface. With time the water might seep into the wood, and make it sodden and heavy. With enough time it might begin to sink, to the mud at the bottom."

Gorgeous, painful and exquisitely sensitive, this is a novel to save for a time when you can savour it. It is a war story, yes, but it’s one that focuses on the psychological experience of war, and how one copes with the burden of bearing witness. It’s also a story about the folly of drawing lines on maps, whether those are borders to be defended in war, or the outlines of an empire created by distant officials who have never set foot in the lands they’re dividing up. It’s a story of love, loss and hope that never places blame, written with an incredibly light touch. Harding has written a series of novels in which she deals with similar themes of memory and trauma, no doubt all written with the same haunting lyrical beauty. Three of those books, at the present time, are linked to the Ashe family; Land of the Living is the second. I don’t think I’ve missed out by not having read The Gun Room, the first in the sequence, as events in that novel actually postdate Charlie’s experiences in Burma; but it is important to read Land of the Living before moving on to Harvest, which reacquaints us with the Ashe family and their farm some years later.

Highly recommended, as much for its glorious pen-pictures of the Burmese jungle as for its evocative story. Read it; give yourself up to Harding’s perfectly-poised writing; and let yourself be lost.

For the review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2021/06/05/land-of-the-living-2018-georgina-harding/
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The novel is set predominantly in Nagaland, a mountainous state in the north east of India bordering Myanmar, or Burma as it would have been called at the time the novel is set. I confess it is an area of the world whose history I was unfamiliar with until reading this book. However, as the novel reveals, during the Second World War it became the site of fierce fighting between Japanese and British troops.

The book moves between three storylines. The first is Charlie’s rescue from the jungle by a Naga tribe and the time he spends living with them without the means to communicate in anything beyond basic fashion. Gradually the reader gets glimpses of what happened to Charlie’s comrades and how he came to be alone in the jungle.

The second storyline describes Charlie’s arduous journey through the jungle back to British administered territory alongside a guide and another Naga who joins them on the trek. “There was no way of telling where the border was and Burma began. No name to anywhere. There was only jungle and mountain, and bare slashed mountain and jungle again, and the rivers ran wild in gorges and you could see across but you could not cross them except where the people had swung their cat’s-cradle bridges of vines, which you walked like a dancer, one foot delicate and light before the other.”

Reaching his destination, Charlie is encouraged by Hussey, a local government official with an interest in anthropology, to talk about his time with the Naga people.

“What did they call themselves, your tribe?”
“I don’t know.”
“We should have a name for them. Tell me about them.”
With Hussey there would be names. Words, story, a route, flattened onto a map on a plain wooden table.

The naming of things, or the absence of names, is one of the themes of the book, as is the inability to talk about some events because they are too traumatic to be shared.  Back in Norfolk with his wife, Claire, Charlie is tormented by flashbacks to the scenes he witnessed in the jungle but he keeps these to himself believing people simply won’t understand what the realities of combat can do to a person.  ‘It was a bit of war one didn’t mention, the clearing up. One mentioned battlefields but one didn’t explain what was there. What was there already when they arrived, what had massed there all through the siege, that they had spent more time clearing up than fighting.’

Those back home want to hear about heroes, not the sordid details that are the reality of war.  We get the sense Claire partly understands there are things Charlie just cannot bring himself to speak about.  ‘Their eyes exchanged what they both knew: that he wouldn’t tell it all and that she would humour him by pretending there was no more to tell.‘
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It is a shame perhaps to have read this alongside Hoffman's!

The story focuses on Charlie's return from and survival of war, taking up his new life in the depths of rural Norfolk,  interspersed with the story of the traumas he experienced during the war. lost in the jungles of Assam. Harding played on the descriptive possibilities and contrasts of the landscapes really well and her language was assured and muscular.

For me, when the mental health of ex-soldiers is such a real concern, I wondered whether setting it back in World War Two contributed anything particularly useful. Were there not more modern conflicts, more present settings she could have employed?
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I didn't particularly enjoyed this book. I had a huge problem with the structure - the constant jumping around in time and of tense and character was confusing and made it difficult to fully engage with the subject matter. And because I wasn't invested in the story it wasn't really worth the effort of untangling the mess. The chronology was awful, circling round and round, coming back to the same point in time several times over or flitting about seemingly on a whim. And great! No speech marks said no reader ever! (Why do authors/editors think this is a good idea? Quirky is nice and all but why make your readers work so hard?) So it was not clear who was speaking or what even was speech. The endless jungle journeys were too many and got boring. The metaphors were obvious and clumsy. The ending was a non-event with little resolution. In fact, I didn't find the whole thing as moving, profound or interesting as I was meant to. Not for me, unfortunately.
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How the haunting effects of war change those who return from it, is a theme that continues to have much resonance. Only a few days ago it was reported in the press that five British Army soldiers who were active on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide in just one week and as many as forty two former or serving servicemen and women are believed to have committed suicide this year alone. This poignant, lyrical and thought provoking tale concerns the experiences of Charlie who becomes lost in the remote jungles of Assam in North East India during the Second World War and eventually finds refuge with a tribe of native head hunters. The story alternates between the present set in 1947 where Charlie now lives as a farmer in Norfolk with his wife Claire and flashbacks to his time spent during the war.

The contrast between the flat landscape of Norfolk as Autumn turns to Winter and the hills and jungle of Assam with its heavy rainfall and misty mornings could not be more marked yet Charlie despite the geographical distance cannot forget the past and the horrors that he witnessed. Memories remain and during the night he returns to the past horrors in his dreams. He is not the same man who left these shores to fight and the relationship with his wife becomes ever more distant as his recounting of his wartime experiences are only partial and incomplete to her.

Much research would have been undertaken by Georgina Harding for she not only conveys a real sense of the region but also looks at the Naga people who's belief that they would gain independence from India after the end of British colonial rule would not be realised. There are a number of themes here which include how violence can play a part in established cultural practice. An accomplished piece of work that I hope will achieve a wide readership.
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Harding deserves credit for crafting an rather original story set after the second world war in a market that nearly groans under the weight of historical fiction set in and around that period,  The characters were sympathetic, grounded, believable, and the author avoided falling into cliched territory which was a nice bonus

The prose was very readable and the couple's plight to reconnect again after living very different lives for so long was moving.   I liked this novel and would certainly pick up another novel by Harding on the back of it. 

With Thanks to Netgalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.'
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At first sight this seems to be an aftermath-of-war story as Charlie returns from WW2 with what we'd now call PTSD: flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinatory episodes. With his experiences fighting the Japanese in the jungles of India and Burma, I wondered why Harding had decided to set her tale at a distance when we have our own more modern conflicts that would serve equally well for a story which isolates those who have been in combat from those who haven't. 

But Harding is a thoughtful and intelligent novelist and we can trust her judgement: as the story develops it turns out that the time and place are important. Time because British women didn't serve in front-line combat during WW2 (however much they contributed in other ways, including as spies and resistance workers), and place because some of the transformative violence Charlie encounters is from a tribe of native head-hunters with whom he takes refuge.

There's definitely a gendered divide in this book that wouldn't work quite so neatly in today's world: here men go to war, women (generally) stay at home and nurture new life through childbirth. The book deals sensitively with how Charlie and his wife negotiate marriage when he has experienced and done things she can only inadequately imagine.

Harding's writing is precise and nuanced, emotive and raw. There are places where the pace languishes (the anthropologist sections) but this is a moving exploration of cultural violence as almost a marker of humanity.
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