Review: The Empty Greatcoat is a story brilliantly and compellingly told
Francis House is a boy, not yet a man, when he enlists in The British Army in 1907. He has already seen horror after a terrible school-time accident, but nothing can prepare him for what awaits him seven years later on the Turkish killing fields of Gallipoli. Here he is pinned down alongside the Australians and the New Zealanders in Anzac Cove: eight long months of futile fighting which sought to weaken the Ottoman Empire and led to the loss of a quarter million men on both sides.
This part of Francis’s life is vividly told, full of bravura set pieces that capture the bloodiness of each day and the longueurs of night, with Francis set like a fulcrum in the middle of all the shelling and death, helplessly watching the men in his charge be killed one by one. War threatens to destroy him too, but it is also, curiously the making of him, wrenching and hammering him into shape:
He is the war. And somehow he can touch and smell and hear every part of it. Francis is built from lice infestations and sleepless nights, from the vibrating earth and the blasted guns, from the coppery stink of blood and the rain pattering on his dug-out roof, and the calming flow of his tincture. If Francis House were blown apart tomorrow, all the juttering screams he has closed his ears to these past months would spill from his body and, rising in a desperate scramble for heaven, turn the sky forever black.
The tincture in question is the opium on which Francis increasingly depends, not only to neutralize physical pain but also to assuage a terrible sense of guilt, occasioned by two incidents in his past which both throw dark shadows over his life. One is an act of revenge against a school bully which goes horribly wrong and the other is a more recent fight with a best friend, which has resulted in the man’s death. Or has it? This is a novel about a man called House built on the sands of uncertain memory, in a swirling fog of opiate induced hallucination and set adrift in the confusions wrought by the exigencies of battle and the awfulness of living, day in, day out with death.
The Empty Greatcoat is a sophisticated story, accomplished in the telling and difficult to pigeonhole. It’s a war novel, yes, and full of true and telling detail. A ghost story also, as might be expected from the author of The Haunting of Henry Twist, with which it shares both spectral apparitions and a historical setting. But it’s much more than a catalogue of apparitions because of the central motif, the empty greatcoat that flaps its empty arms underneath a peaked cap and comes to represent a welter of things, not least Francis’s guilt about leaving his best friend Berto lying on a beach, not knowing if he’s alive or dead. Such a central conceit might be difficult to pull off – to make it believable – but John does so with aplomb just as she rises to the challenge of setting much of the book on the same beach, where each day is like the bloody last, only with a growing need for simple graves.
The novel came into being as a result of John reading her great great uncle’s seaweed-green notebooks. Thus, some of the action is directly based on his personal history and the book intelligently interlaces quotes from the journal of Sergeant Francis Albert House with the fictional version of his life. It adds authenticity to a novel which already has it in buckets.
Rebecca John became obsessed by him and was persuaded by elements in his story that she had a duty to bring Francis to the pages of this novel. How right she was and how easily and persuasively does she breathe life into him and to the real soldiers he encountered such as Berts Murley, Busty Leonard and General Birdwood.
Those who are marooned with Sergeant House at Anzac cove come to depend on him, not only for their orders but also for readings from his sister Lucy’s letters, which bring news from home and the comfort of a woman’s voice. But over time the letters bring news of her struggles, not least to be a part of the war effort, a move that ends in terrible tragedy when she finds work in a munitions factory and following the arrival of a shock telegram causes an accident. You’ll already realise that the Fates work overtime in this tale.
One of the out-and-out pleasures of the book is Rebecca John’s delightful and delighted facility with language, perhaps most tellingly expressed in the way she animates the action. So we have ‘tattling’ waves and shells which ‘scutter’ as the tide ‘fluxes.’ Then rain that patters on Francis’s head which soon is ‘jabbing directly groundward in the windless night, quick and silver and beautiful.’
The novel is the first to appear from new indie publisher, Aderyn Press, which intends to publish spooky, historical and speculative fiction and was in part prompted into being by Michael Sheen when he defended the arts as ‘being fundamental to who we are and who we can be. Something would die in us is we weren’t able to tell those stories.’
‘The Empty Greatcoat’ a story brilliantly and compellingly told by a writer who is technically too young to be at the top of her game. Yet, with The Empty Greatcoat Rebecca John amply proves she’s up there with the best of them. It’s very early in the year to be identifying contenders for the Wales Book of the Year but this one announces itself as if with the howl of howitzers.
The Empty Greatcoat is published by Aderyn Press and you can buy a copy here…