1970 in suburban Melbourne: ‘That was how it happened, thought Harry, feeling the memories rise; they were never far away .. Trusting you to remember, trusting you to do something about it. As if you could fix things, mend the dead, put the world back the way it was.’
And so we go back into Harry’s memories, into the seared experiences that gave him nightmares for decades, back to the day in 1917 when Harry cannot find his foster brother Eddie. Harry searches. He crawls out of the Passchendaele mud in no-man’s land searching for him. He looks into dugouts and stumbles down communication trenches and he asks at Casualty Clearing Stations. Fifty years later his granddaughter comes upon an old notebook in the attic and asks him,”Who is Eddie?”
This is a story of love. Nora waits for Harry but he harbours fears whether she can accept him after what he has been through. Eddie hopes for a life with Claudelle. It is a story too of love between men, brothers-in-arms, Harry and Eddie, Wallis, Hartigan, Alex. From Gallipoli to Flanders the war thunders over all of them like the endless numbing artillery barrages. But it does not end for them when the guns fall silent.
We only recently have begun to speak openly of PTSD and try to understand that it messes people up for a long time. Harry survives wounds and sickness and comes home, but in dreams he returns to no-mans’ land, still trying to rescue mates. The women have their losses too, made harder to bear by Harry’s inability to speak of things he simply does not want to bring to mind. Harry’s mother Ellen, for instance, cannot connect with him any more.
‘The mines and the shelling is like the end of the world. The worst we have seen, and we have seen some bad ones. Harry and me are fine but it makes you cry. There are so many dead you cant help but walk on them’. Eddies notebook.
Clare Rhoden takes us into this vast arena of events, from the debate in Australia about the rightness of the war, into terrible battles, and on through into the waves of pyschological effects upon those who survived and their families. These 220 pages hold material for a 1000 page book. But the author has brought large and complicated things down to the personal level by revealing them in the way that we all ordinarily talk to each other: through a household argument, the queries of a nosy neighbour, the grumbles of soldiers about the food and the cold, the guarded talk about Gallipoli by a sergeant to a fresh officer as they weigh each other up, and through diaries and letters home. This makes Stars in the Night deeply personal and emotional. I got so caught up in it that I paused reading several times so as to absorb it. I cannot praise this novel highly enough both for its story and it’s technical execution.
Although it is about the experiences of Australian soldiers, this novel could really be about the horror of any war, not just the one that millions prayed would be ‘The War To End All Wars.’ The character Harry Fletcher, like many veterans, could not bring himself to attend Anzac Day ceremonies but stayed quietly at home. Yet for anyone interested in the scars left by the Great War and thus the origin of the ‘Anzac legend’, the facts of it, and sometimes the mythology of it, this is a must-read.
Lest We Forget.
Note about ‘Anzac’ to readers unfamiliar with it: The first units of Australians shipped out in 1915 were merged with the first New Zealanders into the Australia New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). Their losses in Gallipoli and later in France shocked both young countries. Australia, population four million in 1914, sent 417,000 volunteers to the conflict. 62,000 died. Both Australia and New Zealand forces suffered casualty rates of over 55% – killed, wounded, gassed, captured, marked as ‘missing’. The term ‘ANZAC’ endures.
Personal note 2020: As I began this book, Australia was dealing with the Black Summer and the whole world was attuned to news about some sort of virus. There was tension in the air, and for the first time I think I had an inkling of what it had been like in 1914 in the households across nations as they readied for conflict, not knowing what lay ahead. On the day I thoughtfully laid down Stars in the Night, Anzac Day services were cancelled for the first time due to the menace of Covid-19.
Where to find Stars in the Night: From publisher Odyssey Books , from BookDepository (with free shipping worldwide) and from Amazon in softcover and Kindle, Barnes and Noble in soft cover Nook, Chapters Indigo, Booktopia, and Waterstones. Or, ask your friendly local bookstore to order it in for you.
Another novel reviewed here about WWI is ‘Nursing Fox’ by Jim Ditchfield which focuses on the nurses. You can read about it here.
Acknowledgement: The graphics shown here are by courtesy of Clare Rhoden and Odyssey Books.
Mark, your reviewer here, is guardian and blundering typist for Mawson, one of this bright world’s few published bears.