Premise: Martin Watt’s is a bookseller who has never stepped foot out of line, is captured for being on the wrong side of a war he didn’t care much about. This short novel follows his story as a prisoner of war and the treatment and brutality received. The novel also contains the story of Jan Afton whose brother has also been captured during the turmoil. Jane being regarded as a spinster to her family is sent to find out what has happened to her brother and retrieve him.
I really enjoyed this short story and was pleased to find a historical fiction novel within the quick reads series. the “quick reads” collection which I have begun looking through lately. The idea of this collection is exactly as it says on the tin (or should that be cover), a shorter than normal book by world leading authors. One of the things I quite like about these books is that they force the authors to cut out a lot of the waffle that sometimes goes on in books. This keeps the stories quite fast paced with a lot happening in less time. This seems to be what has jarred other readers (the use of simpler language) but I didn’t find it detracted from the novel at all. I’m proud of authors who take on the challenge of writing these books so that they can be enjoyed by all even those who aren’t keen readers.
Here is a brief extract so that you can see a sample of the writing yourself:
Men of humble birth will sometimes become officers, but Nat Afton will never be a captain. He will not aspire to it. He wants to lie low. It is a great surprise to Jane that he has even been taken prisoner.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel was that multiple viewpoints were captured in its short number of pages and all the characters were really engaging (you liked who you were supposed to like and hated who you were supposed to hate). Not an easy task I imagine with so few words. I particularly liked the ending.
This novel is set during the second English Civil War when Royalist and Roundhead butted heads, pikes, cavalry and cannon across the Country for supremacy. Mostly describing the situation inside Oxford Castle Prison. I think the author did a really good job of describing both this time period and the setting. The descriptions of the treatment of the Royalist prisoners (I suppose any prisoners from the time), has actually intrigued me and I would be interested in reading more about the period.
A fantastic novelist! Cannot wait to read many more of her works.
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They had heard the planes before they had seen them. The hum distant at first, then getting louder and louder, a thunderous roar approaching. At first, the villagers did not understand. The village was made up of farmers, market traders and weavers. Those that took the village produce to the big town markets knew of the war, but they were not soldiers, they had no reason to be involved in the war, so, they presumed, no reason for the war to come to them. They were wrong.
A few of the men recognised the planes as they came into sight. Their dark shadows and flight formation now looked so similar to the photographs printed in the paper. Panic filled the men and they began to shout orders to those around them. Others did the same and soon the village woman had grabbed the children and headed for the church but as they approached the priest came running through the doors. He had assessed the simple structure and knew that it would not do to protect his people.
As hysteria began to surface amongst the group, a man stepped forward. A strangled hush came across the group with the thundering plane engines providing most of the noise. Few of the villagers recognised the man, he was a shepherd who usually followed his herd amongst the mountains, it was rare he stepped foot into town. Today the villagers were lucky.
He said only one word, “There”. Pointing his hand towards the mountainside. Then he quickly began to walk.
The villagers followed his gaze and although few could see what he was talking about all immediately followed his quick step. They made it to the trees and some of the agitations dispersed as the group huddled and walked, step after step. They were not in the treeline long when they heard the first bomb drop on their town. The ground below them shook and immediately cries escaped them. The priest shushed them gently, as they gathered themselves, they noticed the shepherd kept walking. They scrambled to keep up with him and soon once again the huddle was moving this time, each member of the village was on full alert.
Several more bombs made their way to the ground until the noise was no longer as shocking to the villagers. A few times the shepherd stop and held up his hand to stop the travelling group. As the priest moved towards the man he saw the reason for stopping. Flying low above the trees the planes seemed to be searching. Only once the shepherd moved again did the villagers follow suit. It was pitch black by the time the villagers made the mountain. They all crammed to get inside the cave first, whilst the priest instructed some of the stronger men to begin to gather wood to make fires.
“No”, said the shepherd whilst the priest was mid-way through the instruction. The priest tried to question but the man only shook his head and continued past him into the cave. Reluctantly the priest followed.
After several hours the majority of the group fell into a restless slumber, the planes had left but the shepherd sitting near the entrance and had given no hint that the villagers should leave. The priest was unaware that he too had fallen into an exhausted sleep until he found himself shaken awake by the shepherd. He waved his hand towards the entrance beckoning the priest to follow him. Understanding dawning on him, the priest made his way to the cave opening. The shepherd pointed down into the town and sure enough in the pitch darkness, lights could be seen moving amongst the town.
“Soldiers?” the priest questioned, and the shepherd nodded in response. To back up his point random gunshots filled the night air and the priest squirmed knowing that it was probably a sick or elderly villager whom in their haste they had left behind.
The shepherd pointed along the treeline surrounding the village and the priest once again followed his instruction. Lights were entering the treeline and the priest gasped.
“Are we safe here?” the shepherd shrugged non-committedly in response.
“Well, what should we do?” the priest gasped exasperated.
“Pray”, the shepherd finally provided the priest before he walked back into the cave and returned to his place, from his shirt he pulled a beaded necklace, a cross dangling from it. The beads clicked together as the man continued to move the item around his idle hands.
The priest looked out into the darkness, following the lights moving in the deep night. Reluctantly he turned to the cave once again. This time he dropped to his knees, closed his eyes and prayed, not only for those in the cave but for the poor souls who had already been lost to a war they did not understand and had never wished to be part of.
The priest found himself being shaken awake once more, this time by one of the men from the village. Light flowed into the opening of the cave and as he came around he noticed more and more faces looking at him. He turned around looking for the shepherd but could not see him.
“He left at daybreak,” the man from the village provided. Stiffly the priest got to his feet and emerging from the cave he looked out towards the village. He gasped when he saw the charred remains of what had been his beloved church. Then he shunned himself as his eyes continued finding where homes had once stood only burnt out skeletons of the structures remained. He crossed himself when he remembered the sounds of the gunshots that had penetrated the night. He nodded to the men that surrounded him and slowly they made their descent back into the woodland.
As they entered the village, cries of despair broke out amongst the villagers as they looked around at the carnage of what had been their homes. The priest continued to walk up to where the church once stood. The remains of the stone baptismal font seemed to rise from the wreckage and the priest stepped around the rubble towards it. He reached his hands into the bowl and pulled out a beaded necklace with a cross from it. To the villagers, he may have seemed mad as he dropped to his knee, pulled his hands together in a gesture of prayer and thanked the lord.
Written in response to Sue Vincent’s prompt – #writephoto. You can join in this weeks image or have a gander through the many interesting posts inspired by this wonderful photo by clicking here.
Just a quick note, although this feels like a religious post, I am not overly certain why this post took on a religious storyline. I am from a mixed religious background with both my parents and grandparents coming from different religions, also my family spans both Scotland and Ireland so I tend to shy away from any religious involvement having seen so much arrogance, hatred and unnecessary arguments that seem to stem from religious beliefs. However, I cannot deny the comfort religion provides people or the fact that unexplainable miracles happen all the time.
The stem of this story for me, I think, was inspired not only by Sue’s wonderful photo but a recent visit to Malta, (which indeed is a very religious island). Despite being a tiny island of only 246 square kilometres (95 sq mi), Malta was of huge importance during the war due to its strategic position. On 10 June 1940, Mussolini declared war on the United Kingdom and France. Upon declaring war, Mussolini called for an offensive throughout the Mediterranean and within hours, the first bombs had dropped on Malta. It is so sad to think that within hours this island of vineyards, farming, caves and catacombs was transformed instantly from a place of peace to an island of turmoil.
Anyway, I am no war historian or any kind of historian for that matter and I am sure there are loads of accuracy plotholes within my tall tale (men with rifles following a few hours behind planes with bombs, probably not?) but I liked the story and I hope I may have shared just a little bit of my inspiration with you and even that you may have championed (even just for a second) the shepherd and his cave.
This has had a bit of a snowball reaction in inspiring a vast variety of genre’s I wouldn’t normally choose to read (not to mention have a dabble in writing). Imagine my excitement in finding out this beautiful quaint little story in the news today – The Most Heartbreaking Abandoned Place on Earth. This truly does evoke traditional childhood horror stories of wandering souls in a time-warp returning to each day to the place the called home unaware the rest of the world has moved on. Or a story of a true love returning to this desolate place each day hoping his lover who was taken from him finally returns home. I could go on but I am sure you get the gist. The past can be the most fascinating inspiration for the future.