Review by Thecla W:
Capt. John (Jackie) Turner suffered a head injury in a plane crash during the War. A few years later, out of the army and back in his old job as a flour salesman, he has developed neurological symptoms such as dizziness and difficulty using one hand. These are the result of a piece of metal which it was too risky to remove from his brain. The novel opens with Jackie at an appointment with a neurosurgeon who tells him he has about a year to live and in about 6 months his symptoms will deteriorate markedly.
Jackie begins to think about his time in hospital in Cornwall after the crash. He was one of four in the ward. Jackie and Duggie Brent were prisoners charged with, respectively, black market activities and killing someone in a brawl. The 3rd was Philip Morgan, the pilot, and the 4th was Dave Lesurier, a black American soldier who had been accused of attempted rape, who had cut his throat and developed septicaemia.
Jackie decides to try and track them down. He has some money saved and has some vague notion of helping them. His wife, Mollie, encourages him in this.
The bulk of the novel concerns what Jackie knew of his fellow patients and what he learns has happened to them since 1943.
When I started this novel I wasn’t at all sure that I would enjoy it or even find it interesting. I think this was partly because of the rather flat, matter-of-fact style. But as I read, I became more and more involved and then engrossed.
It is a rather melancholy but warm-hearted and engaging novel which focuses firmly on the lives of ordinary people and the very “unordinary” emotions, achievements and goodness which can lie beneath unremarkable exteriors.
The structure is one of discovery and revealing. First comes what Jackie knew of the others from their time in hospital together. Then we learn what he finds out about events just after this and finally, when he visits Dave and Philip, what they are doing now.
Jackie’s marriage has not been particularly happy but he and Mollie grow closer and more affectionate. He talks to her about what he discovers and she encourages and supports him.
The undemonstrative strength of ordinary people is shown in Philip’s and Dave’s stories where racial prejudice provides the context.
Jackie finds Philip’s mother and sister and learns from them that Philip returned to Burma (where he had been a POW) after the war and is living “with a native woman in a small palm shack”. His mother is horrified and tells Jackie they have no contact. In fact he has corresponded with his sister who asks Jackie to let her know any news.
Jackie goes out to Burma and finds that Philip has prospered and is married to an educated Burmese girl who speaks excellent English.
Jackie is endearing in his open-mindedness and self-awareness. He is aware he may have some prejudices and in Rangoon he thinks:
“Out here, where white faces were few, the fact that he [Philip] was married to a Burmese girl did not seem quite so shattering as it had seemed in England; Mr Turner had already seen a number of girls he would not have minded being married to himself.”
He enjoys his stay and on his return visits Philip’s sister. He tells her to go and visit Philip and see
“how different it all is to what you think… Just make up your own mind from what you see with your own eyes”.
Dave’s story is even more interesting. He is a black American soldier stationed near a Cornish village, Trenarth. His unit is there for several weeks before the white US Air Force troops arrive and in that time the black soldiers have been welcomed by the villagers; they drink in the pub and some of them “walk out” with local girls. Dave admires Grace but is too shy to speak to her. When he does, he tries to kiss her though as soon as she screams to him to let her go, he does so. He is charged with attempted rape.
The quietly principled and decent behaviour of Mr Frobisher, the landlord of the pub, dominates this story. When the white US troops arrive an officer goes to see him and tells him that the white and black soldiers have to be segregated. If they aren’t, there will be trouble because the Negroes will “get above themselves”. So the pub is to be for white soldiers only. Mr Frobisher’s response is “I’ll serve who I like”. When there is trouble (caused by the boorish behaviour of a few white soldiers), he puts a notice in the window saying
“THIS HOUSE IS FOR ENGLISHMEN AND COLOURED TROOPS ONLY”.
And when Dave is charged, Mr Frobisher writes to General Eisenhower in London telling that it is felt locally that Dave is not being treated fairly.
There is a strong emphasis throughout the novel on ordinary goodness. Jackie has not been an especially “good” person. In a small way, he has always engaged in dodgy business practices. He likes drinking in the pub and telling stories with his mates. But when in Burma he collapses and is unconscious, a local Buddhist monk draws his horoscope which describes him as a good man:
“He has known sin and trouble and it has not made him bitter; he has known sorrow and it has not made him sad. In these last months that have been granted to him he is trying to do good, not to avoid damnation for he has no such beliefs, but for sheer love of good”.
Towards the end of the novel when Jackie and Mollie go to Trenarth, he thinks of how black soldiers from all over America will remember the place,
“this unconsidered place, these slate-roofed, unimposing houses and the unassuming people had formed themselves into a little thread in the weave of friendship and knowledge that holds countries together”.
I was reminded of George Eliot’s lines at the end of Middlemarch about “the growing good of the world” being “partly dependent on unhistoric acts”.
The title comes from a verse of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
‘Tis all a Chequer Board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.