Book: And I Shall Be Healed by Julia Lee Dean
JULIA LEE DEAN’S novel ‘And I Shall Be Healed’ (published by Quickbeam Press, 2014) successfully tackles one of the great challenges of writing, how to present emotional difficulty as an authentic one in the face of horror and carnage.
Set in the trenches of World War One, the novel’s main protagonist, Leo Ellis, is a lonely young chaplain serving on the Western Front in 1916-17.
In wanting to fulfill his ministry and support the soldiers in his care, he is deprived of the love and support of his closest friend as well as a mother still racked with grief by the death of his elder brother. This is the emotionally hollowed out state in which Leo has to face the most appalling situations, and Dean weaves Leo’s story skillfully around those of others caught up in what we now regard as a ‘species crime.’
Although an anti-war book (the author has signed the No Glory letter) her equivocation about the justification for that war makes that position stronger, as she frames the position for it, within Leo’s religious vales (much as our Government are doing now with ‘British values’ and their jingoistic commemorations) and of course, the contemporary view that persuaded so many to fight.
That the justification is made through someone with religious conviction is telling, and part of Leo’s emotional truth, (all good books need emotional truth, and this one does). He would surely fall apart if he did not have his religeon. Other characters rail against the war, with one officer referring to his orders for Passchendaele as murder.
This is a multilayered story and the writing is well balanced between the needs of that story and the graphic descriptive passages required to tell it well. As the war poets did a hundred years ago she gives us enough visceral fact to keep us with her, and not to turn away or close down, eg this extract about the priest’s job of collecting bodies from the battlefield.
‘One poor fellow we find is so long decayed that his limbs have loosened within what was once his uniform. When we lift him we lift nothing but a bundle of rotting fabric and putrid rat eaten flesh. As we raise him onto the stretcher his chin tilts upwards and his head rolls backwards, falling clear of the body and landing between my feet. Even now it takes me some moments to gather myself enough to bend down and lift it by what remains of its hair and return the head to the body. No one should have to look upon this. A momento-mori of the most animal kind; it is enough to make a man mad.’
But for all the horror, this is a dead man with no more nerves. Maybe even a lucky one. Even more powerful are the passages describing the feelings of young men about to be shot by their own side for cowardice or battle survivors at a dressing station where ‘…men arrive ghost faced and trembling. Some seem unable to comprehend that they’ve been hit, others come in laughing and crying in a way that is truly terrible to witness.’
But some of the most affecting parts are of the emotional pain of rejection by his mother when Leo is at his most vulnerable (Sebastian Faulks showed us this too, in Birdsong). And although Leo survives the war he realizes that ‘all those caught up in this terrible war will be survivors all their lives.’
And I Shall Be Healed deserves a place in the current World War One literary canon with Faulks and Pat Barker, as she ‘tells it like it was.’
Source: No Glory in War