Review: A History of the Great War: A Novel by Peter McConnell

history_of_great_war.gif   Peter McConnell
Transit Lounge, 237 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Without the addition of the clause "A Novel" to the title of this book you might be forgiven for thinking you were about to pick up a slim history of the first global conflict of the twentieth century. But it is a novel, and while it's aim is rather more modest than a full-blown history, it does attempt to examine Australia and its involvement in the Great War through the eyes of one woman.

The novel tells the life story of Ida Mitton (nee Hallam), who is born in 1877 and grows up near Bairnsdale in East Gippsland, Victoria. After her early promise as a singer is ruined by a bad throat infection, Ida takes a position in a local haberdashery shop, and it is here that she meets Ralph, considered one of the "catches" of the district. To the amazement of all who know her, Ida and Ralph get engaged to be married, but the outset of war in late 1914 puts their plans on hold. Ralph returns after two years badly damaged, both physically and mentally. The relationship between Ida and Ralph, the birth of their two children, and their struggle to maintain their existence on a small holding forms the basis of this story.

This is ambitious. As readers this is the sort of work we are looking for - something that stretches the author in terms of plot, theme or subject matter. And, for the most part, McConnell succeeds in showing us the life, loves and loses of one woman through the first half of the twentieth-century. Where it fails to reach the heights is in the area of reader involvement. And specifically the pacing. We don't seem to find moments of tension, anxiety, emotion or suspense to any great extent. We're not left on the edge of our seats wondering about the possible fates of the characters. It all seems somehow pre-ordained. Maybe this is partly due to the lack of dialogue in the book. There is no extended conversation anywhere to be seen, merely short sentences or phrases. This tends to keep the reader at a distance from the characters, minimising emotional involvement. It's hard to get to know a character if all you know comes from some omnipotent narrator.

There is a very good novel lurking within these pages, struggling to get out. And if that reads like damning with faint praise, it shouldn't. On the evidence provided by this novel, McConnell has the obvious ability to produce good work; he just needs to restrict his scope a tad and give the reader a sense of attachment.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on June 2, 2008 11:59 AM.

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