The first book to be tackled in the great read/re-read to hone my fiction shelves to a perfect Permanent Capsule Collection is H.E. Bates’ The Triple Echo. I know and love Bates through the Larkins. I first read The Darling Buds of May when I was about 12 and it had a profound effect on me. The never-ending summer, the freedom, the way the family adored each other, the open hospitality and groaning table, not to mention the intriguing insights into what s-e-x might be all about. I’ve read it numerous times since and maintain it is indeed perfick.
The Triple Echo is my first foray into non-Larkin Bates territory. It’s a tiny little slip of a novella at 90 pages. According to the front cover it’s a ‘famous tale of love, loneliness and deception’, so I’m glad I’ve finally got around to reading it. It was published in 1970, and is one of his last novels – incidentally, although I was always aware Buds of May was written ages ago (to a child in the early 80s, the 50s and 60s were another planet), I was still a bit taken aback to realise all his books were published before I was born. Our lives crossed over for only a few months. I know this is all digression, but it only struck me today that we were in no way contemporaries despite him having written one of the books of my heart.
The story is set during the Second World War, on a remote farm being kept up single-handedly by Alice. Even if her husband wasn’t a PoW in a Japanese camp he’d still be away at war. She doesn’t expect to ever see him again, and the loss of her dog perhaps weighs heavier than that of her husband. Her world has shrunk down to her farm, which she guards zealously against any intrusion. A lost young soldier from the nearby barracks penetrates the protective shield she’s erected around herself and her property. They bond over nightingale song and farmwork.
Their relationship develops quickly, both needing a safe haven from the realities of war, and becomes increasingly complicated with Barton’s desertion. Alice hides him at the farm, where he adopts the guise of her sister. The transformation becomes more important to Barton, and his desire to convince others of his new personality puts him in danger, as if he can’t help testing the boundaries of his disguise, or perhaps he wants to get caught, to end the waiting.
The story moves quickly as it’s a short novella, but it doesn’t feel rushed as you’re reading it. Not a word is wasted and the phases of Alice and Barton’s relationship develop and shift at a pace that belies the brevity of the book. It speaks to what binds people together and how these bonds can form, as well as the lengths individuals are prepared to go to to maintain them. It’s nothing at all like the Larkin books and will prod me to read more Bates – there’s certainly enough of them to keep me going for some time.
Does it earn a place in my PCC?
Yes. I can see this is something I’ll re-read as I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of the human relationships contained within it yet. And it’s tiny, so it’s really taking up no space at all.
As I was reading this, I was also thinking about other stories set during war that come from a different perspective. The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (2014) tells of a German soldier’s quest to escape the Eastern Front by getting married and taking honeymoon leave. I found it a brutal, brilliant read, and the insight into the German domestic front was fascinating. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and I wrote a review on my old blog, which can still be read here.
The other two books that popped into my head are both true stories and both deal with war in the Far East. The Naked Island by the Australian Russell Braddon is a terrifying yet compelling account of his experience as a Japanese PoW during the Second World War. Published in 1952, it is a classic of war memoir. I read it in my dad’s hardback with a falling apart dust jacket; if it didn’t sit on his shelves it would definitely sit on mine.
Finally, because I was thinking about The Naked Island, I started to think about Jungle Soldier by Brian Moynahan, which is a biography of the wartime exploits of Freddy Spencer Chapman. How he survived three years in the jungle is a testament to his bloody-minded resolve and recklessness. Between 1942 and 1945 he eluded thousands of Japanese soldiers and was a thorn in their sides. He also survived pneumonia and malaria whilst in hiding. The book reads like a tale of derring-do, but, remarkably, it’s all true.
That’s one book dealt with, only all the rest to go now.
I’ve not linked any of the books, but you may know I work for Foyles. If you’re looking for The Undertaking or Jungle Soldier, both are available there. The Triple Echo and The Naked Island are, regrettably, currently out of print but are surely available from second hand bookshops and resellers.