by Terry GrimwoodSome books are like a holiday. A light, fluffy, airy day off in an always-sunny candyfloss land where unicorns and bunnies cavort and happies are ever after. Other novels leave with PTSD and a desperate need for psychiatric counselling for your deeply scarred mind. From the title you can probably guess which camp Bloody War falls into.
The story follows Peter Allman, a regular Londoner who wakes up with amnesia only to discover that in the 18 months he's missing from his memory war has broken out. And not just any war. The capital is being bombed, and the full force of a modern war has transformed Britain. Soldiers infest the streets, whole sectors of the city are bombed-out wrecks, rationing is in place, and the Underground is filled with bedraggled refugees. Life goes on, but it's under the constant threat of unpredictable death. The shadowy Enemies of Democracy have come from nowhere. They attack using drones that can hit a building with pinpoint accuracy, but no-one knows why they started the war.
Allman is an IT worker, and as a member of one of the exempt professions he won't be conscripted to fight. He's also a family man with a wife and three kids who he loves. He'll do anything for his family. But his eldest son, Dominic, will be old enough to be called up in a matter of days. The word is that few return from the front, wherever that is, and Allman doesn't want him fighting in a conflict he doesn't even understand.
However Peter begins to notice too many things that are amiss about the war, and he questions them. The TV is showing subliminal adverts, and no-one else seems to notice how twisted its propaganda is. Thugs from the SSU terrorise ordinary people and seize powers in the name of protecting democracy. Spying, repression and suspicion are rife within the massive walls that keep Londoners penned in, and Allman is left wondering who the real enemy is.
Bloody War is utterly terrifying. The first person narrative makes the story more immediate, and the tension is cranked up by scenes of awful claustrophobia and the constant threat of death. But I think what really drives home the fear is the way the story is set now, in a London that's both completely transformed yet easily recognisable, using the language of conflict we've all heard in the media and recognisable and believable weaponry. It's the kind of war that could happen for real. No matter where Allman goes there's the sense that he never has anywhere to hide, as though the war has taken his choices away and stripped him of himself.
At first we're led to wonder how far Allman will go to keep his son and the rest of his family safe. Later on it's a question of how a civilised democracy can fall so far and so fast into savagery. This is not a novel for the faint of heart: quite apart from the gore and horror of war, the intimate way this is written makes the story's heartache all the more acute. The main character is decent, plucky, and a little ragged around the edges, a likeable everyman. But he's in hell, and he isn't about to wake up and snap out of it.
This is one of the most powerful stories I've read in a long time. Sometimes the proofreading is a bit iffy, and there's a dearth of commas, but otherwise the writing can't be faulted. Bloody War is an important book, a timely warning about political complacency and the insidious erosion of our rights. And the ending, which brings the story's relevance to the real world into clear and startling focus, blew me away.
19th June 2011
Review © Ros Jackson