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by Anne Perry
Ballantine, September 2004
352 pages
ISBN: 0345456548

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Why Perry should have chosen to depart the green fields of high and late Victorian society for the mud of Flanders is wholly unclear, but the turn represents a serious lapse of judgement. SHOULDER THE SKY is the second in a projected series of five novels that presumably will carry the protagonists from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the Treaty of Versailles.

The protagonists here are the Reavely family, the Reverend Joseph, now a chaplain at Ypres, when he isn't wandering over to Gallipoli or facing down a U-boat on the Mesopotamian Sea; his sister Judith, a 22-year-old VAD who has been seconded to chauffeur a general around the Western Front and who is apparently free to do precisely as she pleases otherwise (she's a volunteer, Perry informs us solemnly), and Matthew, who this time makes only a cameo appearance. All of these characters are given to bursts of rhetorical excess which make them sound very much alike as well as to similar fits of physical twitch when under stress, which is most of the time.

About a third of the way through, a murder occurs, of a journalist who has made himself unloved; the Rev Joe suspects that his best friend in the trenches has done the deed and mulls over the moral problem of whether he should be exposed.

All this is bad enough and those who have a nodding acquaintance with the subject will have already noted the historical howlers even in this summary. (The book is far, far worse.) But Perry loves a conspiracy, as her readers well know, and the conspiracy here is headed by the sinister Peacemaker, who is plotting to bring the war to an end before England wins it. What's in it for England is regaining the American colonies.

Knowledge of this dastardly plot is what doomed the Rev Joe's mother and father to being dispatched in their flivver just before the War; unravelling it is what motivates Joe, who spends an enormous amount of energy as well seeing to it that the truth about Ypres and Gallipoli not be told because it will interfere with recruiting efforts. The conspiracy sounds rather like something that might have been hatched around 1935 and Perry seems to have confused Kaiser Bill with Hitler.

In any event, we are apparently supposed to take seriously the proposition that England's 'honour' is sufficient justification for the death of millions, an odd reading of Gallipoli by a former New Zealander. Most readers will have difficulty not rooting for the conspirators and wishing the Rev a quick and fatal case of dysentery.

This is, I believe, a pernicious novel, not only in the sense that Perry betrays almost no understanding of the historical period she has decided to take on, but pernicious in its glorification of political rhetoric, of nationalism, over ordinary human values of compassion and a commitment to preserve, not squander life. Her inversion of the usual views of the War and its meaning is so complete that I kept waiting for the revelation that Joseph is the villain, but alas, it never comes, nor do I think it will.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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