Eugene by John G Smith
|Eugene by John G Smith|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A family saga serving a slice of social history through the eyes of one character… but what a family and what a character!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 208||Date: September 2016|
|External links: Author's website|
Eugene is the youngest of 13 children, born into a family for whom the future seems assured due to their parents' butchery business in a small, close East Midlands community. But they can't see what lies ahead: war in the world and between the siblings. For Eugene, from his birth in the 1920s through the war in Burma and trying to settle down afterwards, the impact will last a lifetime.
John G Smith has put his mind to many things in his life, from his humble beginnings as a clerk on the steam railway through to accountant, company chairman and then independent consultant. It's only recently that John has moved on to publishing his writing, starting with Poems About before his autobiography (Derbyshire Born) and now this, his first novel proving he's at home in the literary world as well as that of business.
It may be a historical fiction but it's much more than your average hist fict. It's about relationships within a family and the effects on changing social attitudes mixed in with events we recognise from the history books. It's also about a variety of writing techniques that John adopts to tell the tale, adding layers, surprises and ensuring from first to last we're definitely not going to be bored.
We move back and forth through Eugene's life with a sense of fascination, never knowing where he will take us next chronologically, geographically or emotionally. We can be present during the formative moments of his life or listening to the elderly Eugene describe moments to librarian and local genealogist Pearl when we aren't listening to his thoughts as recollections grab him during day-to-day life. Despite the movement through time it's to John's credit that we're never confused whether we're building on our knowledge of Eugene and his family or learning something new.
The shocks really start when Eugene returns from Burma, giving him a chance to reacquaint himself with his brothers and sisters. Even when it comes to his financial saviour and brother Frank, Eugene discovers that the saving comes at a cost. This realisation takes a while to materialise and, until it does, he assumes that his greatest problem is the ongoing feud at the eldest end of the family.
John also has the gift of including historical research in a way that entices and enriches rather than impedes. For instance, being a true East Midlander, there's a sad commentary surrounding the mining industry as well as moral questions about the line between criminality and expediency. The tail end of WWII in Burma is where his gift really stands out though.
Not only does John educate us on the sad side to binary army regulations at this time, he cleverly inserts meaty factual paragraphs amongst the fiction. If this was a film, these would be segments of contemporary wartime footage bringing alive one of the cruellest modern war campaigns that the British and Commonwealth forces experienced.
In a sentence, Eugene offers us a seamless meld of historical fiction and encyclopaedic knowledge that puts it above many debut novels; most definitely well worth a read.
(Thank you to the folk at Matador for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you enjoy a good family saga, try Remembrance Day by Leah Fleming. If you'd like to read more fiction about the war in Burma, we also recommend the Man Booker Prize Winner of 2014 The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
You can read more book reviews or buy Eugene by John G Smith at Amazon.com.
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