Robert Allison’s debut novel is an exploration of the human psyche set in the desert in World War Two. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.
Many of us will have developed an image of desert combat through watching classic films such as Ice Cold In Alex, Sahara and Desert Fox and more recently through news footage of young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Author Robert Allison’s first novel The Letter Bearer distils all these images into a compelling combination of adventure story and exploration of the psychological damage of war.
“I think I was always likely to write about war because my father was a history teacher,” says Allison who grew up in Roberttown in West Yorkshire. “He was Head of History at Mirfield High School – and his special area of interest was the Second World War. As a boy I was surrounded by books about war and taken to see war movies at the cinema.
“My grandfather was a sergeant in the British army in the Second World War and he had a couple of stories he told me when I was a teenager – one in particular which stayed with me was about a transporter plane that was shot down over the jungle in Burma and my grandfather had a three-day trek through the jungle carrying a wounded pilot.” Allison says that story had an influence on his own choice of narrative set during World War Two in which a wounded man awakes in the North African desert.
He has been thrown off a motorbike that hit a mine and after being left for dead by two German soldiers, who remove his identity tags, he is found by a group of British army deserters. He has no memory of who he is and is carrying only a bag full of letters – written as ‘last letters home’ by men he assumes he knew. He gets to know the deserters and although he finds some respite with them from war, he is unable to escape the terrible truth about his recent past that he, and the reader, slowly begins to understand.
The characters are all recognisable types – the aloof upper class officer, the practical working class Scots sergeant, the sympathetic doctor, the Italian prisoner of war they have picked up along the way – but they are very well drawn and credible. And the dialogue, too, is authentic. “That was one of the challenges of writing this actually because you start to read the diaries and anecdotes written at the time and you realise that they are archetypes because they actually existed – they were like that,” says Allison. “So you kind of feel duty bound to represent them in the same way but at the same time not making them clichéd. If you take them out of their normal roles – officer, medical officer, sergeant and so on – when they are removed from that situation, technically you start to work against the stereotype. They are in a very unusual situation.”
One of the most remarkable things about the book is that is written wholly in the present tense – it’s difficult to pull this off successfully, but Allison does it with aplomb. And it is entirely appropriate, conveying the sense that this man, due to his apparent memory loss, is absolutely living in the moment. “People told me at the time it was a courageous thing to do,” says Allison. “For me it was the only way to go because I really wanted to capture the immediacy of his situation. It’s a stream of experience really.”
And as a debut the book is very accomplished – beautifully written, carefully constructed, very engaging and obviously thoroughly researched. “I did a huge amount of reading,” says Allison. “Fortunately there are diaries that were written at the time by serving tank crews and there are also amazing journals that were published later – they are so complete and so vivid. I also managed to gather together quite a few letters written by servicemen at the time – they were very touching and they were useful for getting the style that the letters were written in. The trick was not to let the research overwhelm the storytelling.”