NO MAN'S LAND
Hill, author of superior mysteries (Ruling Passion, etc.) and so-so thrillers (The Spy's Wife, etc.), offers a much more ambitious novel this time: a tale of three WW I deserters, 1916-1918, that's fairly strong as melodrama, fairly weak when it strains for psychosexual insights and thematic resonance. The British deserter is naive farm-lad Josh, who becomes useless as a soldier after witnessing the court-martial/execution of his beloved brother (who refused to follow kamikaze orders in the Battle of the Somme); unfortunately, he's more a clumsy metaphor than a believable character--especially when his tears are described as "last fragile symbols of purity and innocence in a world of the broken, the befouled and the betrayed." The German deserter is Sergeant Lothar, an aristocrat with radical/antiwar sentiments and a guilty conscience (because of his war-widowed sister-in-law's suicide). And when Lothar and Josh team up, mid-battle, to flee, they wind up joining a large band of deserters led by Hill's third central character: Australian macho-man Viney, a heavy-handed study in repressed homosexuality. Once the newcomers join "Viney's Volunteers" in their hide-out (an abandoned German bunker in no-man's-land), tensions escalate among the deserters: pragmatic Viney and idealistic Lothar vie for power, for Josh's adoration, while some of the others give vent to sheer greed, cowardice, or bloodthirstiness. Further complications ensue when the deserters form an uneasy alliance with a French peasant-family--which includes beautiful young Nicole (whom Josh inevitably loves) and her shell-shocked brother. . .whom Josh accidentally kills, propelling Nicole into the arms of Lothar (for a one-shot pregnancy). Meanwhile, the deserters are being stalked by a British captain whose fiance was killed, unintentionally, during one of Viney's anti-Army raids. And finally, amid a German Army assault, the priorities shift in uplifting--but unlikely--directions: the British captain helps Josh and Nicole to flee together; Viney, thanks in part to the onset of sexual self-awareness (after a brief, unconvincing consummation with Josh), becomes a sort of war-hero in the corny fade-out. Throughout, in fact, though the deserter theme is relatively fresh, Hill succumbs far too often to clichâ€šs of character and plotting from related genres (POW/lifeboat dramas, wartime soap-operas). On the other hand, his attempts at more serious, literary textures are largely misguided: stagey speeches to reflect conflicting views on war, socialism, and other historical issues; stilted ventures into poetic language; crude proclamations of "tragic irony." And the result, while fitfully involving as action-adventure and always earnestly workmanlike, is neither absorbing as a three-cornered character study nor persuasive as an exploration of the deserter phenomenon.