To write of male love in the Second Australian Imperial Force may not even have been allowed some years ago. Now it seems perfectly natural. Yet there is a thread of fear running through this story that gives the narrative its edge and interest.
William and James are two Sydney boys, one from Pymble, one from Millers Point. William appears to have all the advantages, good school, fine home, respected father, devoted mother, two intelligent and achieving older brothers to whom he can look up. James is without a father, though he does have a doting and understanding mother, but they are not well off, indeed his mother must work hard just to scrape by.
While James's family circumstances are not closely drawn there is mystery and unhappiness in the Pymble home that emerges at the beginning of the narrative, which will puzzle the attentive reader, but will not be revealed until late in the story. Am I ruining this fine novel for you if I tell you that William's father is a monster? I think Nigel Featherstone wants us to understand this quite early on for this is a novel where nothing is as it seems.
Yet the story can seem to be straightforward. Don't be fooled. Set in the early days of the war in the Western Desert, with a gripping description of the first of two battle scenes, William wants to do well to hold up family values and expectations, but is frozen and overwhelmed. All else proceeds from this failure. A sympathetic reader will believe that William must have been shattered by his first response to battle. The attack came from out of the blue, the Australians were utterly unprepared for what would befall them and the noise and intensity of battle is a first for almost every one of them.
William's failure and subsequent rescue set him on a path of personal discovery in the midst of war and the rigidity of the military that shows his nobility, ability and sheer common sense. It is hard to believe that such a small cog in the military machine would have been given such responsibility and independence but this is William's lot. He displays ingenuity, determination and forbearance.
But he has discovered a secret in Alexandria from which he cannot escape. Much of the action, thereafter, takes place in a confined setting of an Alexandrian home, with a family which is again, not what it sees. Mystery and fear pervade this family home, just as they did in Pymble, as William soon discovers.
Caught up in this closed world William rediscovers James who has long intrigued and excited him. There is such much to enjoy in the unfurling of this relationship, within other complex relationships. Alexandria, its laneways, gardens and souks and private, enclosed homes is drawn with such clarity that the city becomes a character in its own right.
William returns to the desert again and again, exercises his care and protection of his men, but his mind is constantly returning to a small room in Alexandria and its dangers. To give more of the story of this book away would be to betray the complexity of a very fine novel. But if the reader wants setting, description, action at breakneck speed and a bittersweet ending, Bodies of Men will give it all.
Don't bring preconceptions about our glorious military past to this book. They will be destroyed. Nor should you bring a regard and affection for the Australian military police. That too will be shattered. But if you want a tender and remarkable story of discovery and fidelity, this is the book for you.