Rendered in beautifully poetic prose, Murphy’s debut novel follows Capt. James McFarlane of Canada’s “A” Company, 1st Irish, into war.
Capt. James McFarlane is on the brink. It is September 1944, the eve of a great battle, he has not heard from his wife, and he is physically and mentally exhausted. He’s noticeably losing his grip. At first blush, though, McFarlane seems normal enough, “happy that he is in a situation where he can test himself to his physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits.” He jokes with fellow soldiers and seems well-liked by fellow officers and his men. But piece by intricate piece, his motivations and fragile psyche are revealed. Tiny sips from a flask grow into a major drinking problem that leads him to strike an enlisted man, miss an important pre-battle inspection and ultimately send his assistant in search of rum in the midst of a firefight. Through dreams, flashbacks and letters, readers learn that his decision to join the army was more out of inadequacy and restlessness than patriotism, and this decision to voluntarily leave his new bride, Marianne, dealt a severe blow to his marriage. While exploring McFarlane’s inner landscape, Murphy meticulously conveys the realities of war, from the ruined Italian countryside to the mixture of boredom and anxiety haunting the soldiers. All is done in exquisite style that places readers squarely in the action: “Here and there, flash by flash, are illumined trees, houses, hills, recoiling guns and men in action, captured in flared snapshots, yellow and orange flicker, red glow, a purple bruise of clouds.” Murphy uses stream of consciousness throughout, but in the dénouement, that stream explodes into a roiling sea breaking on the various shores of McFarlane’s inner and outer realities.
An empathetic yet flawed man drives this wonderful novel, the first from an author ready for a glittering literary career.