By Paul Coffey
Many historians and students of the First World War are wary about the dramatization or fictionalisation of the conflict that they study. In some cases any element of historical inaccuracy is jumped on, any attempt at writing by a ‘non-expert’ sneered at, any stereotypical portrayal of the British Tommy frowned upon.
I must admit I have been hesitant in the past about reading novels about the war. However Paul Coffey’s offering is borne out of his own experiences visiting the battlefields and his desire to learn more about the names inscribed on the headstones that litter the landscape. Anyone reading the book who has researched the men who served during the war will no doubt feel that parts of the story strike a chord with their own experiences.
The plot centres on a young man who has no particular interest in the war, but who visits the Somme with some friends and encounters a headstone inscribed with the same name as his. He begins to research the soldier, unwittingly setting off a series of encounters and a chain of events that show just how deep the scars of the Somme run. The books switches between then and now; not necessarily an original concept, but utilised more effectively here than in some other novels I have read. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot; there are several twists and turns that at times stretch the bounds of credibility, but this is a work of fiction so I think it can be forgiven!
In terms of dealing with the war the novel covers a number of areas – the 1st of July attacks, shot at dawn, the brutality of fighting, comradeship, demobilisation – it manages to fit a lot in but I felt it was done reverently and effectively, with some strong characters helping to drive the story. Are there historical inaccuracies in the book? Possibly, but I wasn’t looking for them. I found myself immersed in the plot and actually the physical setting is just a part of the whole. The characters are believable, not overly stereotypical, and I felt I wanted to know more about them and their fates.
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Shadows of the Somme