It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. Had one thing that they’d seen or heard, that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart. … We thought if we could gather those things together we would call it ‘The War Book’. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was. (The Deep, p 40*)
From time to time, I have described my small efforts to put some order into my reading, grouping a few books together by place (the Western front or home front, for example), by person (nurses, perhaps, or civilians in the war zone), by author (a trilogy by one author, or a series of Irish authors let’s say), or by time (eyewitness accounts or modern ones).
Occasionally I come upon a common thread unawares. Like now, I find myself having read a series of the most exquisitely written books, all by authors new to me. In each work, the authors evoke time, place and mood in lovely turns of phrase. The horror of war is conveyed by the beauty of words.
The Deep, a novella by Mary Swan, is the latest of these. The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds in less than 100 pages.
The twins are so close that they are as one person: their thoughts are one, they act together, they converse in their own language and finish each other’s sentences, they each speak as “we” in the first person plural.
The things we talked about in the wet tent, in the wooden room at Chalon – we shared then all. And if there was a split second, the tiniest of moments, briefer than the blink of an eye, when one of us said something – then in that briefest of moments the other had the memory, could hear, feel, taste it. (p 53)
The reader senses quickly that they are dead, and their death has something to do with the war. We’re drawn immediately into the mystery surrounding the twins. Slowly, their story is stitched together, snippets of information gleaned from different people (no fewer than ten in all). Even those closest to the twins seem not to know them well. The most telling revelations are in unguarded remarks.
With each new piece of the puzzle, we see the significance of past details, and how perspective can change our understanding. (It is worth reading the book and then quickly reading it again to catch missed nuances.) From an unnamed Canadian city to a canteen near the Western Front in 1918, and on the ocean voyages back and forth, we realize that war has played havoc on these young women, ultimately ripping them apart.
The strength of short fiction is in what it leaves wanting. Mary Swan knows that sparse lines and empty spaces in between are equally important in telling the tale.
I’m looking forward to reading more by Swan, P.S. Duffy and Kamila Shamsie when Great War 100 Reads comes to an end.
* Page references are to The Porcupine’s Quill edition, 2002.
Read my interview with Mary Swan.
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