Saturday, 10 August 2019

Book review: The War Artist, Simon Cleary (2019)

This gripping thriller offers a marvellous overview of contemporary masculinity. At its centre is the death in Afghanistan of a solider, a sapper, named Samuel Beckett (yes, the writer’s presence has to be acknowledged at this early stage in the piece). The man who had been the cause of the death, Brigadier James Phelan, brings Beckett’s body back home but the memory of the death lingers in his mind and he is let go from his command and is retired on a pension.

When doing a review it’s hard to know how much of a book such as this, one which relies so heavily on its plot for forward momentum, you should reveal. I won’t say much more than is necessary to outline the basic themes and to give an idea of the kinds of ideas that lie at the work’s core.

One of the themes – as well as being a major plot device – is physical danger, and this is illustrated early, in the domestic context, away from the battlefield, when Phelan goes to get a tattoo in memory of Beckett in the studio of a Surry Hills artist named Kira. Her boyfriend, Flores, deals in drugs and on the day Phelan comes to get inked a man turns up trying to rob the shop. Phelan decks him and the police take the junkie away but the threat of physical danger lingers, for the length of the book, and never entirely disappears. Flores’ brother Prince is a major dealer and Flores is an abusive partner.

While he is in Sydney attending to official duties Phelan has a fling with Kira and then returns to his home in Brisbane where his wife, Penny, a nurse, tells him she has had cancer and has had a mastectomy. Then, in an effort to control his own physical ailment – post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD – Phelan enrols in a creative writing course and produces some poetry that is published in a university journal. The story gets picked up by the local media and goes national, with Phelan regretting, on TV, the country’s involvement in the Middle East. Kira sees the broadcast, finds his email address online, and contacts him, then makes a quick decision that will change her life. And his.

Cleary tries to reach into the national psyche with this complex novel that, despite overt trade aspirations, attempts to discourse intelligently on weighty themes. It’s hard these days to talk about masculinity and what it means but Cleary gives is a solid go, making believable characters, each of whom possesses a clarity of invention and a substance that enables them to survive a series of long, detailed passages where not much happens beyond the poetry of the words on the page. Kira is finely drawn as the rebel who gave up a comfortable life on account of her art. Penny is the partner Phelan deserves as he tries to come to terms with his changed circumstances. Even the boy, Kira’s son, Blake, has his own personality. Then there are the soldiers and their rude egalitarianism.

There have been other books like this produced in Australia in recent years, and the mixing of genres seems to be a characteristic of publishing nowadays as writers try to reach new audiences while, at the same time, remaining true to their artistic instincts. In fact, the embedding of large themes – such as war and domestic violence, or courage and loyalty, or atonement and redemption – in narratives with tight, fast-paced plotting seems to be something of a new thing for readers here.

I don’t see any chance of this trend abating. Going by the quality of the books that are appearing that conform to this pattern, it looks like we are in a golden age of publishing. An age of new hope and of creative strength that allows people to enjoy the fun of a complex, well-knit plot as well as the satisfaction of big ideas that have currency and that offer their own inherent drama. How could you go past this kind of writing?

Cleary isn’t the only creative artist who has made the link between war and crime. George Gittoes, who made the movie ‘Soundtrack to War’ (2004), which featured US soldiers in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, would later go to the US and do a series of dramatic drawings of youths living in rough parts of Florida. Like Cleary, Gittoes is an Anglo Australian of mature years.

No comments: