Flanders by Patricia Anthony
(Black Swan, £6.99, 412 pages, paperback; published 1999. First published in the US, 1998.)
Flanders opens in March 1916, with the first of a series of letters written by Travis Lee Stanhope back to his kid brother in Texas.
Stanhope has used the war as an excuse to get away from his brutal father and stuffy medical school, joining up so that he can travel to Europe and see a bit more of the world. His naïveté is pretty soon shattered and his letters home take a darker turn, reflecting the grim reality of life on the front line; an increasing proportion of the letters are not even posted, the subject matter too personal, too disturbing.
An entire novel written as series of letters, using convenient ploys like unposted letters to fill in the gaps, could easily end up as a too-clever author's finger exercise, an experiment in artifice. Flanders, however, is none of these: it's a passionate, heart-rending portrait of trench warfare and redemption.
If there's such a thing as the beauty of war, it's there in Anthony's prose: in the loving detail of awfulness, the vivid illustration of how low humankind can sink.
It's beautiful from a distance, war. Artillery glittered and sparked along the horizon. The strikes struck cloud-high blossoms of fire. Green flares sailed the night like drowsy fireflies. (...Flanders, page 36)
The trenches here are crumbling. The mud's ankle-deep. Dig a hole anywheres, it fills up with water. The soil is full of stinking bodies and white, knobby bones. The earth spews up death. It's built into the walls. Down the trench a Frenchie, last season's casualty, is sticking halfway out the bags: one horizon-blue leg; a bloated arm with two fingers off, another rotted to bone. The boys who were here before us said they'd miss him. (Flanders, page 210)
At the start, Stanhope's nationality is exotic to the British soldiers and he plays up to this, allowing the officers to laugh at him and belittle him whilst all the time feeling superior: "The English may have seen war, but I have lived with Pa, so I have seen Hell." Soon, his alien-ness becomes a black mark against him: accused of rape and murder, even those closest to him believe him guilty and he ends up being assigned the most risky duties as punishment.
He finds it even harder to blend in when strange things start to happen around him. At one point, he's only mildly injured when those around him are killed in the shelling -- is he blessed, or just lucky? He starts to dream of a strange graveyard, tended by a beautiful calico girl; of the dead wandering aimlessly in the battlefield as if they don't know where they belong. Yes, Flanders is a ghost story of a kind, a dark fantasy of the dead. And if there's anywhere for ghosts, for young men dead long before their business with this world is complete, then it's the killing fields of the First World War.
Patricia Anthony is another writer who suffers the curse of genre. Too good to be "just a fantasy" or "just a ghost story", Flanders is published by the literary imprint Black Swan, making it harder for the genre audience to find in the bookshops, or to even be aware of its existence. But then, could a book like this be published successfully as fantasy? By almost any definition, Flanders is a fantasy novel, but it's hard to picture it on the shelves alongside Dragonriders from Somewhere Quite Like Middle Earth and others of that ilk. Maybe Flanders really is too good for its genre.
This review was first published in Foundation 77, Autumn 1999.
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© Keith Brooke 1999 and 19 February 2000