Book review: Blasted Things, by Lesley Glaister

Blasted Things is a crime novel, but not a mystery. The distinction is necessary because we have come to think of crime novels in a limited way, and this is encouraged by booksellers who have different sections in their shop for “fiction” and “crime.” This is of course convenient for their customers. There is a murder in Blasted Things, and its consequences are horrible. Nevertheless the book is more likely to find itself on the fiction shelves. The murder isn’t a mystery. It comes near the end and therefore isn’t the starting-point as is usual in crime fiction.

Lesley Glaister

The novel begins in 1917 in a casualty station on the Western Front. Clementina is a young auxiliary volunteer nurse. Lesley Glaister describes her work with the same brutal honesty as Pat Barker brought to her war trilogy; uncomfortable reading for the squeamish. We learn she has a fiancé in England, a young doctor called Dennis who opposed her decision to join up,but her experience in France makes one wonder about how a marriage to Dennis may turn out.

It proves difficult. The second section begins in 1920, Clementina is pregnant, but, unsettled by her wartime experience, finds both marriage and motherhood hard. Dennis is affectionate but lacking in understanding and sympathy. For him the peace means or should mean a return to pre-war life. He is conventional and class-conscious, also dislikes any talk of the war – which he had missed – though Clementina generously tells her wartime friend Gwen that Dennis’s work on the Home Front was as necessary as theirs in France. One isn’t quite convinced that she really means this. Be that as it may, their relationship is awkward, Clementina at ease only with Dennis’s sister, Harri, a war-widow whose marriage had met with family disapproval. Glaister is acute in her exploration and depiction of family and social discord.

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An accident brings her into contact with another victim of the war. Vincent, a sergeant then, has a ruined face, a disfiguration which has prevented him from returning to his pre-war work as a salesman. He is now based in a pub where he fancies the motherly landlady and seeks to win her favour by helping with her young son. The chance meeting with Clementina suggests other possibilities to him, while she, seeing in his ruined face – which she sketches, for she is an accomplished draughtswomen – finds the feeling of responsibility she discovered in the war returning, and with it, some of her self-confidence. So, skilfully, Glaister prepares us for a climax which is at the same time surprising and natural, and an ending which appears likely to be bleak, yet hints at resolution.

There is more than one sort of crime – crimes of commission and crimes of omission, obviously , but also crimes of the body and crimes of the spirit. There are crimes which result from a failure of understanding and the absence of empathy. All these crimes are to be encountered here. How, for instance, are we to judge Dennis’s disinclination, even refusal, to recognize that the war has rendered his habit of thought and feeling obsolete?Clementina may have survived, even come through and reached a point of acceptance. Yet Glaister, rightly, I think, leaves the question open: “A watery sun penetrated the army-blanket cloud, casting leaden gleams on the tide, and she turned away – it really was a chilly day – and hurried towards the warmth of Harri’s.”

“Army-blanket cloud,” “leaden gleams,” “a chilly day” – all ominous and scarcely banished by the single word “warmth.”

One wonders what might follow. Can Clementina settle into a comfortable life as the doctor’s wife? Can she put the past behind her? Her son will be old enough for the next war 20 years on. A sequel perhaps?

This is an accomplished novel with an amplitude that may be called old-fashioned in as much as in both style and theme it recalls the sort of novels that were written in the inter-war period by writers who had no interest in experiment, but took character,setting and story seriously. It has a fine sense of time and place – a good novel for these days of lockdowned confinement.

Blasted Things, by Lesley Glaister, Sandstone Press, 343pp, £14.99