The Sins of Soldiers by S J Hardman Lea

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The Sins of Soldiers by S J Hardman Lea

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A gripping, refreshingly written hist-fict featuring the warts-and-all daily life in WWI trench warfare. Poignant, thrilling and scary, it does justice to those who went through it while reinforcing our grateful respect for them.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2016
Publisher: Matador
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785890185

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Anson Scott wants to join the British army and World War I for a different reason than most of his fellow Americans. He's a journalist wanting the uncensored inside story to send back home; a deadly enterprise as, if the Germans don't get him, the Brits may deem him a spy. Unperturbed he carries his plan through and finds himself on the French front in 1916. He has an ally in British officer David Alexander, which is just as well since not all his enemies are across no man's land. The two men have a lot in common, more than they know and perhaps more than is good for them as the Somme approaches.

British writer S J Hardman Lea – Simon to his friends – has pulled off something I wouldn't have thought possible. During the past couple of years there have been many WWI novels coinciding with the centenary, perhaps making us feel book fatigued. (No disrespect meant to the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought, just indicative of the level of saturation from those who write about them.) However, even if you feel you can't take another morsel of peri-Somme 1916, please try a little of this one. Simon writes in a way that ensures we're soon hooked totally and it all started with a picture.

When the author looked at contemporary wartime photos, he wondered why the soldiers often seemed to be smiling in the face of such horrific adversity. After some thought and reading he came to the conclusion that all emotions (across both the happy and depressed ends of the spectrum) become heightened during warfare. With that in mind, he set forth to write this, the first of his Lost Intensities series. (The series title itself coming from a 1916 poem by Edmund Blunden, soldier poet and friend of Siegfried Sassoon.)

A novel exploring intensity of emotion in tandem with combat would only work in the hands of a good writer as these feelings would need to complement the action rather than engulf or cheapen it. No worries there though: Simon not only presents us with these characters' journey, the multi-layers work well together, meaning we're on them every inch of the way.

This is also a book that opens our imaginations to the sensory experiences we may have only taken in intellectually before. For instance he describes the smell of the trenches: a concoction I'd never read about before of human waste from all orifices (to be delicate!), BO, mud, blood and the scent of fear. Now he's mentioned it, it makes sense and turns the volume up when we consider the discomfort that added to the enemy's onslaught.

Also I'd never considered the effects of living with enmity from within the British trenches. Anson is an outsider who isn't one of the officer establishment and yet hasn't shared life experiences to be embraced or understood by the enlisted men. If we add to this the company's own sadist, the story becomes totally unpredictable, making it completely enthralling.

Simon also has a gift for avoiding central casting characters. The front line narcoleptic medic will stay with me for a long time.

I must admit Scott's alliance with Alexander made me like Scott a little more and conquered some of my ambivalence. His role and illicit revelations in the trenches put a lot of people at risk and yet we're plumping for him at every turn. This is definitely his book as we watch him move from ambition to loyalty crescendo-ing towards that battle and…

Their friendship is fascinating. They may be poles apart but it's not long before they become brotherly-close. Alexander is an all-round great bloke who bridges the gap between officers and lower ranks with enviable ease, making it natural for him to take Anson under his wing. As the book goes on he also seems to have a humanising effect on the American, becoming a target for a loyalty that only existed towards the folks back home before. There are limits to this loyalty though.

The idea of a person taking a book to tell their story continues with the second in the series The Sorrow of the Nurses (expected in Spring 2017). It'll be told by British nurse and David Alexander's fiancée Beatrice, who becomes a catalyst for events towards the end in Book 1. I already like her and very much look forward to her perspective.

I have no idea where her thoughts will take us, although I'm guessing there will be some incredibly authentic battle field medicine ahead. The reason? As a day job, Simon is a consultant surgeon which will come as a surprise to many: he seems to be as much a born writer as he is eminent ophthalmologist.

Further Reading: If you'd like to read more about the poet that inspired this series' title, we recommend Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War by Harry Ricketts. If you'd like more background to great battle of the Somme, there's 24 Hours at the Somme by Robert Kershaw. If you prefer to stay with fiction, we recommend the haunting Her Privates We by Frederic Manning.

You can read more about S J Hardman Lea here.

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