The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale

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The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Elaine Dingsdale
Reviewed by Elaine Dingsdale
Summary: The Harrowing follows the lives of two brothers during the Great War Years. The younger brother attempts to murder the elder, is conscripted into the army: the older brother follows, in an astonishing act of forgiveness, to attempt to bring him home.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571238255

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The cover of this wonderfully moving novel sets the tone - the poignancy of the poppy almost sheltering the soldiers, gives a graphic and tantalising taste of the engrossing tale which is to follow.

Effectively the novel is divided into three interlocking parts. The first deals with the actual murder attempt and its immediate aftermath, the second transports us to the theatre of war, whilst the third details William's (the elder brother) search for Samuel. All are interesting in their own right. The first section gives us an intriguing glimpse into the harshness of life, the unwritten rules of behaviour and conduct in the village, and presents some engaging characters, with whom we can readily empathise.

The second portion, for me, was the highlight of the novel. The portrayal of the horrors of the Flanders fields, was simply outstanding. I have only a layman's concept and understanding of this period, but it struck me that the author had researched his subject very thoroughly, and I imagine that experts and purists would find his descriptions accurate. Poignant, horrific, moving in the extreme - the sheer horror and brutality of these chapters kept me engrossed. Juxtaposed to the degradation and the horror, we are uplifted by scenes of common decency and support for the comrades at arms. The relationship between Samuel and his captain, and also with the deserter, are well documented, and moving in the extreme. Initially I expected that I would find Samuel to be an unpleasant character, but in fact, the reverse was true. He had a magnificence about him which very quickly led me to forgive his attempted murder. The battle scenes unfolded very graphically, and moved me to tears. This section of the book was outstanding, and built up a huge momentum to the plot.

The third section came as a slight anti-climax. The harrowing whereby William, having been dispatched to the same unit (a tad unlikely perhaps?), sets off to locate his brother. In a supreme act of forgiveness he accepts that his brother's attack was in some ways justified, and doubts that he actually intended to kill him. This was perhaps the least convincing of the three sections, and I felt that I had to suspend belief on several occasions. Nonetheless, the portrait of the countryside ravaged by war, the depiction of the local populace struggling to survive, alongside the brother's quest, was worthy in its own right, and again, some fascinating characters were introduced.

In conclusion, I cannot commend this novel highly enough. Dinsdale is an extremely talented author - whether depicting time or place or characters, he does so in a thorough, and believable manner. He is also an excellent linguist, and to use an artistic metaphor, he can paint a very poignant portrait with a select few words:

…it seemed like the townships had shifted, that everything was vaguely askew, like a painting scoured from its canvas and a forgery daubed in its place

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of Three Miles by Robert Dinsdale.

If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy the factual account of the First World War in Brothers in War by Michael Walsh.

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