In Laird Hunt’s gripping novel Neverhome we meet Constance, aka Ash Thompson, who joins the American civil war disguised as a man. ‘I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic’, Ash says matter-of-factly referring to her mild mannered husband Bartholomew. And no, it’s not my spelling mistake in this opening sentence, it’s Ash’s. Ash is a simple farmwoman who dreams of finding the first lilac in spring. She’s also happens to be a take-no-prisoners sharp shooter. Ash joins the war out of a sense of duty, at least that’s what she tells us. Soon we see the contours of a troubled past in this very human portrayal of a tormented woman in a man’s world.
Ash might be a simple mind but she ain’t no dummy. Heroic, resourceful if not always honourable, she cleverly uses her two personas to deceive and escape. We warm to Ash, although she is not a heroine to easily like. Her loyalty only extends as far as the next favour, she trusts no one. But that seems to be the rule of the war, so who can blame her?
It’s to the ghost of her formidable mother that Ash turns when in doubt. The woman who encouraged her ‘never to turn cheek’, who courageously stood on the side of losers and whose traumatic death haunts Ash.
Laird Hunt gets under the skin of this down-to-earth woman, delightfully describing her emotional moments in no nonsense factual terms. When something makes her cry she simply says it ‘put a tear into the corner of my eye wouldn’t leave even after I had wiped it away.’ (Again, not my error.)
In fact, the entire book is written in a style and rhythm where you can practically hear the drawl of this uneducated but intelligent woman. The grammatical mistakes can take some getting used to but the simple language is full of gloomy atmosphere and deeper meaning.
Ash will shovel human shit, bury dead soldiers or shoot the enemy in cold blood with the detachment of someone just doing a farm job. Occasionally we’re offered glimpses into her mind but, as the war rages on and the horrors accumulate, Ash’s reliability starts slipping. We’re never quite sure if the terrible, eerie stories she tells us are figments of her imagination or the truth. They could easily be either.
Hunt excels when he describes the harrowing battle line warfare of the Civil War, with the two sides marching towards each other, elbow-to-elbow in rows upon rows. The aftermath is equally brutal with the survivors clambering over bodies to escape the battlefield.
For a time I followed an old road lined by trees. The road looked like it had once gone from someplace fine to someplace fine else and also that those days were gone. There were dead men sprinkled all around. You would have thought to look at them that they had just got winded and decided to plunk down. Have a smoke. Think it through a spell. One of these men wasn’t a man.
The shots don’t stop ringing in this book until the very last page and its brutal ending. As you have guessed, Neverhome is not cheerful read but an impressive portrayal of human resilience and a homage to the hundreds of women who did exactly what Ash did.
Neverhome by Laird Hunt is published by Chatto & Windus, 243 pages.