Review by Amanda Hickey
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
What is it about war that can rapidly bring men to the point of love?
In their everyday lives they may have run from it, avoided it or even tried to destroy it but finding themselves on a battle-field with the very real prospect of an untimely death as their future, of all things that looms largest, it is love. And so it is for the two protagonists, Corporal William Marsh and Private James Kelly, in the latest novel, Bodies of Men, by Nigel Featherstone.
The time is World War Two. The setting: the Western Desert and the colourful, cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, which has become a staging post for the Allied push against the Axis forces of Italy and Germany.
Coming from sleepy Pymble on Sydney’s upper north shore, junior officer Marsh is assailed by the kaleidescope that is Alexandria.
He saw the domed roofs of mosques, with minarets pointing to the sky, but also churches, albeit with intricate local detailing … there were people here from so many nations, and the laneways and streets and squares gave off a thousand smells; always, it seemed, there was the waft of fruit and vegetables. (p.57)
It’s a rich setting worthy of the suspense that follows.
The two men are on a collision course — quite literally — when, caught in a stoush with the enemy, James Kelly saves the handsome William Marsh. It’s a double shock for Marsh, for they were once childhood friends sharing their deepest thoughts (‘I want to hear the world hum’) until Marsh’s father, disturbed by the growing intimacy between the boys, puts a sudden end to their friendship.
Meeting again on foreign soil and caught up in a war that has erased not only future plans, but also many of society’s social mores, they are grown men with new desires and a cauldron of emotions. As soldiers in the AIF (Australian Infantry Forces) they are playing their part in the overarching narrative of Australian culture, which is all about the importance of nation-building entwined with masculinity.
Throughout the novel, evocative, cinematic images appear in one’s mind’s eye: for example, the craziness that comes with war.
In the desert, day after day, the heat stacked on top of itself … One night, the men bored but not ready for sleep, Jack Finch — the Cutter — got onto all fours and began imitating the rolling gait of a scarab beetle, which were nearly as ever-present as the flies. Then Acornly joined in, then Mack Donovan. A slow, hypnotic ballet in the dull light of a crescent moon.’ (p.118 -119)
Such bizarre snapshots are clearly underpinned by Featherstone’s careful research into the day-to-day happenings of ordinary diggers at that time. But the doings of the infantry men are only a back drop, adding another layer of tension to the drama unfolding between the main characters.
‘How can we get by, James asked himself, when so much of life is beyond our control, when so much of it is unknowable?’ (p. 138)
Events take another turn when James is badly injured in a motorbike accident. An unusual couple from Alexandria, Yetta and Ernst, find him lying on the side of the road and take him back to their home to tend to his injuries. Logic should have seen them drop off James at a military hospital as he is registered ‘missing in action’, but they have their own reasons for keeping him.
Through his recovery, James gradually becomes involved with this odd family and the secrets they are carrying. From Yetta he learns a little more of what it is to be a man:
‘If I know anything about this world,’ she said, ‘it is this: 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.’ (p 177)
Marsh and Kelly do require extra courage as homosexuality was not just banned in the defence force (a ban that would not be repealed until 1992), it was also a criminal act. Yet there were many service personnel who were LGBTQ, and who also had their share of war heroes such as the WW1 poet Wilfred Owen and WW2 secret service operator, Denis Rake, who worked with Nancy Wake and the French resistance.
The protagonists in the story are men but then there’s Yetta, deftly drawn and full of mystery, who emerges as a strong character in her own right and we also becomes caught up in her longings and challenges. She’s a Jew married to a German with a son involved in the resistance, and these are tense times for all of them.
On discovering Kelly’s hiding place, the officer in Marsh is torn between doing his duty (and so reporting his whereabouts) and being able to indulge in Kelly’s company away from prying, judgmental eyes. There is a sensuousness in the writing that is felt in almost every scene and in many of the characters’ gestures: ‘Now sitting on his camp bed William put his fingers to his lips, which were dry and cracked. What was a kiss? A kiss was an echo; a sweet, tender echo.’ (p.166)
The evolving romance between the two men is tender and erotic, often at the same time, a great accomplishment by Featherstone, who writes such scenes with panache.
When the kiss finished, James took a step back. He smiled; it was in his cheeks, in his eyes, in every rise and dip of his face, as if the starlight that been at the sea had somehow got inside him. (p. 187)
Marsh discovers a camera at a market and attempts to record some of what he sees. (This, by the way, was not so unusual as a number of AIF soldiers had cameras and did just this.) The camera offers an interesting diversion but when it goes missing, Marsh realises there is trouble ahead. ‘What is a man, William thought, if not a dangerous story?’ (p.203)
It’s not just objects but people who go missing, a reoccurring theme in this beautiful narrative. Yetta worries for her son and this anxiety is ratcheted up another notch when her husband disappears too.
Owing his recovery to Yetta’s care, James takes on a new mission: ‘Silently he said to her, I will do everything I can to bring your husband and son home.’ (p.198)
The two soldiers are torn by different loyalties. William is determined to be a good commander: ‘he had always wanted to serve with distinction (what other purpose was there?)’ (p. 141 ) and look after the men in his section; James wants to help Yetta but also tries to be loyal to the words of his pacifist mother which ring loudly in his ears: ‘What sort of mother, what sort of human being, holds onto war as being the answer?’ (p.104)
Flashbacks to their very different childhoods reveal not only the men they have become but the sparks behind many of their actions. The males around them echo their deepest concerns, such as when Ernst, Yetta’s husband, asks James, ‘But how much are we going to risk for the people we love?’(p.152)
For these men (and indeed all LGBTQ service personnel), serving one’s country also entails hiding their identity — a double sacrifice. On one long twenty-mile march, William Marsh has the realisation ‘he was living in two different worlds, he was living two different lives.’ (p 207)
The characters’ philosophical insights about life and what it means to be fully human are not so surprising during a war when everything appears so fragile, transient and uncertain. And with all the divisions that war tries to create, it cannot hide the contradictions, incongruities and ultimate paradoxes that emerge. For James, one of the most profound comments he hears comes from a would-be enemy, the German Ernst, who says ‘There is nothing more important than love and refuge’. (p.152)
Certainly these two ideas are major themes of the novel as it wends its way from war story to love story and then, with the search for Yetta’s missing son, morphs into a thriller. This could be unsettling for some readers, yet each of these threads is carefully braided together by the plot points and character shifts. Added to this, the lightness and poetry of Featherstone’s prose makes for a scintillating, unforgettable read.
Bodies of Men is not a typical war story, but more pertinent than ever now that historians are beginning to uncover countless stories of LGBTQ people and military service. Stereotypic views of what it is to be a service man or woman are continuing to fall away, and as Featherstone deftly shows, the line between genuine mateship and gay love has perhaps always been blurred.
Bodies of Men
Hachette Australia, 325 pp
Amanda Hickey is a writer, by day, and has just published a WW2 history book Tobruk to Labuan: the life and letters of letters of Brig. Colin ‘Hugh’ Boyd Norman. By night she is an ESL teacher. She has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums — documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and books. Her first documentary, King of Hearts, (Writer and Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Co-Producer, Australia) We Are Many, is currently available on I-Tunes. Amanda also writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La and is currently working on a memoir about her mother’s experience in World War 2 and migration to Australia.