The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile

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The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A fictional memoir written as a long letter to an abandoned daughter forms the prism to look at a century of war. The personal tone of the letters doesn't stop the narrator from deploying some wonderfully picturesque language – and the emotion is suitably constrained, leaving the daughter (and the reader) to make their own judgements.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: October 2018
Publisher: Legend Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1787198142

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As the blurb says, In a cottage in Normandy, Lina Rose is writing to the daughter she abandoned as a baby…the whole of Chonghaile's second novel is a series of letters addressed to Diane. Lina is now in her seventies and Diane is a mother herself. They have met just once since Lina gave her up for adoption. It was not a good meeting.

There is no fancy formatting to allude to the epistolary style of the book, but writing it as an extended letter or series of letters enables the story to be told in the first person, and to be told slightly out of order in the way that we don't find out things that happened until later while at the same time insisting upon a purely straight narrative timeline. There isn't a contradiction there. As Lina says, 'it is my story, and she tells things in the order in which they became part of her story, not therefore until the point in her life in which she knew them.

One of the key elements of this surrounds what happened to Robert during the war – the Second World War – that led to what happened afterwards.

War and what it does to people is the theme of the book. For not only is this Lina's story and Diane's story, it is also (Lina says) the story of a century that remade the world. There can be no question that the 20th century remade the world, but I wonder if it did so any more than any of the centuries that preceded it, looked at from their own place in time. The Greek and Roman empires, the crusades, the voyages of discovery, the renaissance, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution(s) – all have remade the world in their time. No doubt the 21st century will remake it again in ways that we cannot yet fathom.

But for those who were born and grew up and/or died during the 20th century – especially those who were alive for half of it or more – it truly must seem like one in which everything changed beyond measure, beyond reason, and most of those changes grew out of war. So war is the focus.

The tale starts with Lina's parents, their meeting in the idyllic heroic fantasy before the First World War degenerated into mud and bullets and squalid death and young boys shot for cowardice when they'd been too brave at the beginning and lied about their age to go and fight, shot because they were too young to stand what war threw at them. It starts with a father who survived it all, but came back damaged in ways no-one really understood and the woman who knew enough to know how to hold him more-or-less together while they raised a daughter.

History repeats itself as the daughter, Lina, watches her own young love go off to fight another war…a very different war…one in which she will not simply stand and wait, but will do her own part.

But this isn't a book about the heroics of war, or even the grotesque failings of war as played out through national policies and local scandals. It's a book about how wars – several of them – we move through WW2 into Korea, into Vietnam, into the Cold War (that so very nearly became hot) and on into the independence struggles in Africa – impact on the life of one woman. Lina tells us what she did and – to the extent that she understands it herself – why she did it, and at the heart of the story, how guilty she feels about it. Somewhere between dreadfully and not at all. A shifting point on that spectrum.

It is a very personal take on what war and the aftermath of war might be like. It's about the banal as well as the horrific. It's about the way we humans can look at devastation as its happening and know exactly what is happening and yet still see an abstract beauty in the vision of it…if you look from far enough away.

I've written elsewhere that the measure of my pleasure in a book – not in the story of it – but in the writing, the expression of it – can be marked in the number of turned down corners by the time I get to the end of it. Let's just say, I couldn't be thinking of passing this copy on with not just its ruined corners, but also the highlights and asterisks against the passages I want to come back to and couldn't help but mark.

It seems trite to say that an author has a way with words – what writer doesn't? – but there are those who can plot a good tale and keep you turning pages because you want to know what happens next, and then there are those who do make you want to remember individual phrases: steal them, work around them, wish you'd come up with them. Conghaile has that way…that picturesque turn of phrase that reminds me bizarrely of very different writers, of Terry Pratchett and Raymond Chandler. It isn't beautiful necessarily, or at least not always, but it is such an apt encapsulation of an idea that you cannot mistake its meaning.

A couple of my favourite examples:

On the passage of time marked by the ticking of clocks: That's the danger with clocks. They become part of the furniture and we forget what they are doing.

On lying flat to the ground, pretending you're not there as death rains down from a passing plane: The bullets whine and the shells hiss and the noise is like nothing you've ever heard. Like a thousand damned souls screaming.

And on war generally…we all swear blindly, blithely, uselessly, falsely, that these things will never happen again. Never again. The most over-used trite phrase in the English language. We blasted that phrase to oblivion in 1939…I know what happens when we let the dogs of war slip their chains. I worry that the only deterrent is memory and those of us who bear that crippling burden are dying off…We turn wars into epics, soldiers into heroes, disasters into destinies.

Chonghaile doesn't do that. Her characters remain soldiers and propagandists and reporters and wives and women struggling to be who they need to be. She doesn't overtly say that none of the wars she covers should never have been fought, acknowledges that maybe they had to be, but also makes the point that Old men and their complex grey grudges spark conflicts, but the fighting is done by idealistic teenagers.

Much of this tale is about the fighting, but more of it is about the people not on the front line, about the decisions made by one woman, trying to find her own place in the world, and at the end of her life wondering what the reckoning for that will be. It is about the search for love and finding it and what it takes to sustain it. It is the putting down of a life, so that it might be judged: Lina's life that her abandoned daughter is being invited to judge as she will… but also the putting down of a century so that we can make our own judgements on the good and ill of it, but mostly, again, in the hope that we do not forget.

Finely judged, emotionally constrained in just the right measure. Brilliant.

For more from the same author we can recommend her previous novel Rain Falls On Everyone or for a factual take on the impact of the Second World War (which is the pivotal war in The Reckoning) we suggest you try A Passing Fury: Searching for Justice at the End of World War II by A T Williams.

Buy The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile at Amazon.com.

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