About half way through Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel his central thesis is stated to James Kelly, one of the protagonists: ‘James, there is nothing more important than love and refuge.’ This maxim is placed on top of the one given to James by his mother: Just be yourself, darling. Simple, honest, unpretending. These two statements sit beneath all of the action, intrigue and romance of Bodies of Men. They are maxims that James finds easier to live by and accept than his old friend William Marsh, the second protagonist of this tale.
Bodies of Men takes readers back to the African theatre of World War 2. The opening has James and his tank platoon in Egypt, caught in an ambush by Italian soldiers. During the fighting James thinks he glimpses an old childhood friend, William Marsh, an officer in another platoon, and saves his life by killing two of their attackers. But not long after this James goes missing, presumed to be the victim of foul play, and William is transferred to a supply depot in the desert and ordered to protect the supplies and train the small group of men under his command. It turns out that James had illegally taken a motorbike from camp and been seriously hurt in an accident. Rescued by an émigré family he finds himself with a broken leg and being cared for in their house in Alexandria, unwilling to report in to his unit. When William finds James by chance on a visit to that city, he does not turn James in as a deserter as he should. Instead, a long simmering relationship starts to flower.
At its heart, Bodies of Men is a romance, complete with a meet cute childhood backstory, clandestine meetings, rash decisions that endanger both parties, and potential tragedy always on the horizon particularly due to the nature of the relationship and the time in which it is taking place. But the characters and their personal stories, the setting and the action around the pair allows the novel as a whole to transcend these tropes.
Featherstone captures the feel of Sydney in the pre-war years and then of Egypt, particularly the bustling streets and backalleys of Alexandria, in the 1940s. He does this with a faintly formalistic style that suits the period and his characters. The chaos of combat is also well handled in the few battle scenes. But aside from a couple of skirmishes, the full impact of the war is somewhere over the horizon and, in William’s case in particular, happening to other people.
As noted above the themes of love and refuge run through Bodies of Men. Most particularly, what people do for love: whether it is William protecting James, or one of James’s saviours Ernst, going off into a war zone to find his son, or even the ultimate actions of William’s commanding officer. And then refuge: from the refuge of a person who can bring another peace and calm, to the real refuges of a small house with a walled garden in Alexandria in the middle of a war or a mythologised childhood holiday house. These concepts, running through both the characters and the situations they find themselves in make for a resonant and thematically rich experience.
Some readers might pause before considering another historical piece set in World War Two, and a romance at that. But Nigel Featherstone has managed to find a corner of that war that has not been particularly well explored and wartime relationships between soldiers that have not often found their way into print. There is plenty that sets Bodies of Men apart from the traditions that it draws on, so even for readers who might be a little jaded by romance or stories of WWII, this is worth spending time with.