Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan

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Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Packed with period detail, the book weaves together a number of narratives from life in the middle of the Great War in an English market town. Memorable characters and a pleasingly unusual take on war fiction that has a strong ring of authenticity.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 9781444759402

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If you read a lot of fiction about World War One, it's tempting to imagine pre-war England as an idyl of peace and innocence. Andrew Cowan's Worthless Men depicts a much more gritty and earthy England. Set in 1916 in an industrial and market town, it weaves together several narratives that combine to depict a hard life even before the outbreak of war. In fact, its easier to imagine the lure of adventure that the war initially offered as a change from the harsh realities of life at home, although by the time Cowan's novel begins, the grim reality of what is involved has dampened much of this enthusiasm.

The book is set on market day in the town, and in many respects it continues much as it always has done. However, this day a train full of injured British soldiers is also expected back in town to attend the hospital set up in the grounds of the local big wig industrialist whose factory employed most of the town folk and now employs most of the women, ironically making the very barbed wire that will have caused at least some of the traumatic injuries to the returning soldiers.

The two dominant narratives are Walter's and Gertie's. Walter is a haunting voice, whose situation quickly becomes clear but when you first realize what's going on early in the book comes at the reader with at pleasing thump. So I'll gloss over him in order not to ruin that for the potential reader. But he is well placed to describe the pre-war life of the town. Gertie, the young daughter of the local pharmacist, another narrator here, is working at the local factory but before the war spent time as a companion to the two daughters of the local industrialist who themselves are not nursing in France. She therefore knows another of the narrators, the son of the industrialist, Montague Beckwith who is back in the family home recuperating mentally as well as physically.

Cowan's book has its origins in research he carried out in Norwich some years ago, compiling an oral history of people who lived through the Great War. As a result, it's packed with beautiful period details that could only have come from real experience. His style is creative but the creativity serves the story and there's never the feeling, as can be the case, of the style getting in the way of the lives of these people. The result is a haunting, and often moving, record of life in a market town during the Great War.

The 'worthless men' of the title would appear to represent those at the bottom of the social ladder whose valiance and bravery make them the true heroes, but what also comes over is the role of the women. Here, several suffered domestic violence and hardship before the outbreak of hostilities but now are not only running their families but also doing the jobs that their husbands did before they headed to France. Perhaps then, this is what Cowan is referring to in his title. Either way, it's a thoughtful and memorable story and Walter in particular is a character that is likely to live long in the memory.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Sceptre for sending us this book.

There's never a shortage of fiction relating to the Great War to chose from, but The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally is a particularly good example, and like Cowan, Keneally takes a slightly less conventional look at events. At the risk of changing wars, the hospital in a country estate also crops up in Motherland by William Nicholson, which is also well worth reading.

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Buy Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan at Amazon.com.

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