In Harding’s (Alvin’s Famous No-Horse, 1992, etc.) epic work of historical fiction, a young British soldier’s life is changed forever in Italy during World War I.
Reg Olcutt, an aspiring writer, is sent into combat, and although he survives the mud of Flanders and trench warfare, he nearly loses his life on a patrol along Italy’s Piave River. He’s rescued on the riverbank by a young woman named Gabriella, and he recuperates with her family in the Italian countryside. Reg is happy there until he’s captured by the Germans; later, he’s reunited with British soldiers. Despite his injuries and the impending end of the war, however, he’s sent home to be court-martialed for desertion. Reg awaits trial in his hometown, managing to keep the village’s newspaper running and forming a timely and helpful acquaintance with author Rudyard Kipling. Reg has a future in England, but he can’t escape his memories of Italy and the lovely woman who saved his life. Harding’s narrative is a lengthy tome that spans many years and countries. Reg travels from Italy to England and back again as he chases an unexpected future. The novel is incredibly detailed and delves into topics ranging from trench talk to the operation of a printing press. Though the research is impeccable, Harding’s thoroughness does bog down some portions of the novel, particularly in a section featuring Reg’s letters and diary entries. But the pace picks up with the conclusion of the war, as Reg adapts to civilian life in England and, later, Italy. It’s enjoyable to watch a small-town boy cross paths with famous figures of the day, including Kipling and Benito Mussolini, although the most satisfying interactions are with Reg’s Italian family. Harding brings the Italian characters to life with vivid descriptions, flowing prose, and witty dialogue. There are moments when Reg seems doomed to unhappiness, and it’s difficult to guess where the wayward solider will land, but Harding pulls together many narrative threads in a neat conclusion. Reg’s story is hard-earned and overlaid with tragedy yet somehow feels just right.
A well-researched novel of one man’s war and redemption.