Tag Archives: first world war

Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.

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The Land Girl – a review

I really enjoyed this novel. Set around the First World War, it follows the trials of Emily, a young lady of middle class background who wants to be a Land Girl and do her bit. It’s a novel that stays away from the front, although characters are very directly affected by the fighting. It shows the perspective of women remaining at home while war is waged. There’s a conscientious objector – and we see what kind of treatment was normal for them. There are soldiers home recovering from wounds, there’s shell shock, and shortages, and sexism and suffragettes. It is, all in all, a very rich depiction of the period.

What I particularly liked about this book, was the handling of central character – Emily. It’s all too easy to write historical novels and give characters from the past modern sensibilities. This book explores the rise of women wanting a say, wanting work and fair pay for their work and the scope to make a life on their own terms. We see women from a range of class backgrounds coming at this issue from all kinds of angles. The passion of women who believed that real change was possible is captured here, but so is the reality of living with grinding sexism.

Emily wants to run a farm. The workers on the farm are mostly land girls, but getting them to take her seriously as an authority isn’t easy. Running male workers is even more challenging, and Emily knows that her chances of being taken seriously by any man – even a man who has seen what she’s capable of – are pretty slim. She knows this is how the world works, and while she wants things to be different, her confidence fluctuates. Her mother calls her a nuisance, and other family members find her ridiculous and embarrassing, and she deals with all of this as best she can.

Allie Burns has written a book that deals with all kinds of relationships – romantic, familial, the relationships between people and the land, the relationships between people of different class. The relationships within a village and within a farm. It’s interesting to watch how the pressure of war erodes some of those traditional boundaries, and how rapidly some people push back to get things as they were once the war is over. What seems like progress to some seems like a dangerous problem to others. It’s not a battle we’ve stopped fighting. There are still plenty of men who despise female authority, assume that male work is automatically better and worth more, and who think that women should stay home. A hundred years on, we’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough.

More about the book here – https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008310097/the-land-girl/