Review by Linda Hepworth
Publshed by Picador (Imprint of Pan Macmillan) 11th June 2021
ISBN: 978-1-5290-3097-6 HB
Drummond Moore and James Carter met in the late 1950s whilst doing their two years’ National Service. An early encounter, when Drum saves Carter from losing money in a card game, marks the beginning of what will become a life-long friendship although, on the face of it, they have absolutely nothing in common, either in terms of background or personality. Drum is a rather shy, self-effacing young man from a Labour-voting, working-class family who, prior conscription in 1957, had spent two years at the Ford factory in Dagenham. Carter is from a wealthy, well-connected background but, having just been sent down from Oxford, his father has insisted he should now do his National Service. However, keen not to be sent to the various areas of conflict his fellow conscripts are being posted to, he gets his father to pull strings and arrange for him to serve his time in the Catering Corps and, as a way of repaying Drum, ensures that he is included in this safe billet. They spend the final three months of their service at ‘Doom Town’, a mock-up of a town devastated by a nuclear bomb and used to train troops on how to support the Civil Defence Corps following such a catastrophic strike. It’s an experience which not only haunts both men but will influence their behaviour, and relationships, for the rest of their lives.
Following de-mob Drum marries Gwen, a barmaid he met in Cumbria and returns Dagenham to work at the strike-ridden Ford factory, whilst Carter returns to his life of economic security and privilege, marries Daphne and lives in the family home in the north. Each of the couples goes on to have two children. Although contact is maintained, their lives follow these very different paths for the next twelve years until, in 1971, Carter encourages Drum to move his family north, buy the farm next door to him (to prevent the land being sold to a developer) and become a farmer. From that point on the lives of the two families become more complexly entwined.
By the end of the short first chapter, set in 2019 and introducing the reader to Nate and Anneka (Drum and Gwen’s adult children), it’s clear that not only have the siblings been estranged for forty years, but that something life-changing has now happened to reunite them. The timeline then switches to 1959, when Drum and Carter are completing their National Service at ‘Doom Town’, with the ensuing almost five hundred pages being devoted to a decade-by-decade exploration of their friendship, their relationships with their wives and their children, gradually building a multi-layered account of the events, both major and minor, which have influenced their decision-making and shaped their lives over a sixty-year period.
Told mainly from the perspectives of Drum, Gwen, and later Anneka and Nate, this hugely ambitious and engaging story managed to combine the intensity of the intimate, complex relationships between the various characters with evocative portrayals of the external events which were influencing their lives. I was impressed by the convincing way in which the author captured how the co-dependency of the unlikely, unbalanced and frequently toxic nature of the relationship between Drum and Carter was forged during their shared experiences of National Service and ‘Doom City’. How the promises made then, and honed over the years as each of them held the other to account, could never quite be broken, even when reneging on them was a clear temptation. Their relationship was central not only to how the story developed, but to the shifting dynamics between the two families over the decades, especially the relationship between the two wives. I found all the characters totally convincing, with each providing an essential ‘key’ to the veracity of the unfolding story – although it’s hard to give examples of this without revealing information which needs to be discovered incrementally!
The impact on both men of the time spent at ‘Doom City’, and the military exercises dealing with the mocked-up aftermath of a post-nuclear attack, has a lasting effect. However, Drum’s obsessive fear about the possibility of a nuclear war and whether he’d be able to protect his family, not only seriously affects his own mental health but inflicts a different sort of damage on his relationships with his wife and his children. In the following six decades there are numerous examples of threats to national and global security (eg, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, IRA bombing campaigns, 9/11, terrorist attacks, suicide bombers etc) which provide fuel to feed his fears and, even when he’s able to intellectually recognise that his behaviour is dysfunctional, damaging to himself and to the people he loves, he’s unable to prevent himself from catastrophizing. I found the psychological integrity of the author’s depiction of how this crippling anxiety affected Drum, and those around him, very impressive.
Having lived through each of the decades this story covered, one of the reasons this was such an engrossing and thought-provoking story to read was because the author made such effective use of his research to distil an authentic ‘essence’ of each one. References to books, music, television programmes etc were interwoven with the major political and social changes which took place during this period of recent history, meaning that throughout my reading I felt thrust back into each era, able to recognise, and identify with, many of the issues the characters were struggling with … as a child growing up in the 50s, I had nightmares following training exercises at school about ‘what to do in the event of a nuclear war …’!
I think one of the reasons I could hardly bear to put this 533-page novel down was because of the author’s wonderful use of language to evoke not only a convincing sense of time and place, but to enable me to understand his characters in what felt like a very intimate way. One of the ways in which he did this was by allowing me to become privy to their inner reflections through their streams of consciousness as they explored different ideas, scenarios, consequences etc. Ignoring conventional rules of syntax, these disjointed ‘meanderings’ were often quite short, but I found they added layers of depth to each of the main characters, enabling me to ‘hear’ their distinctive voices. However, much as I enjoyed them, I suspect that some readers would be irritated by these sections!
In many ways this is a dark and disturbing story but it’s not one which is without moments of humour and glimmers of light, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to readers who appreciate complex, multi-layered, and thought-provoking novels.
With my thanks to the publisher and Readers First for my copy in exchange for an honest review.