Blasted Things

Lesley Glaister

Published by Sandstone Press 7 May 2020

336pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka

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On the surface this is a straightforward yarn about the adventures in love of our heroine Clementine, set at the end of the First World War and the years immediately following. In the current Covid-obsessed climate, it’s worth stating that the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 does not much feature and is irrelevant to the plot.

At the opening of the story Clementine is a First World War VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse (like Vera Brittain, of Testament of Youth) and very much looked down on by ‘real’ nurses in the field, but doing the similarly gruelling and gruesome work under appalling conditions. VADs worked alongside doctors and regular nurses, up to their elbows in pus and blood and shattered limbs, holding the hands of young men as they died calling out for their mothers. Bonds of friendship and love formed under such circumstances and when exhaustion allowed could be intense, and so it proves for Clementine. Moreover, in order to put herself in this situation, Clementine has rebelled against her family and specifically the man to whom she is engaged to be married, a civilian doctor who did not want her to go. Already, we have an impression of Clementine’s mettle.

However, in due course the war ends and she returns home to rural Kent, marries, begins a family and apparently becomes a pillar of the community. But all is not as simple as that sentence makes it sound; Clementine is suffering what we would recognize today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and not only for the reasons listed above which her family know about. For there are powerful events which occur in the battlefield hospital, early in the novel, and upon which the arc of the subsequent story depends, which she cannot reveal to them, and which I cannot reveal to you without spoiling your enjoyment of the plot.

Blasted Things is a clever title. It references explosions on the battlefield, relevant to the field hospital setting and personnel, but the phrase is also a slang expression of dismissal which one might use referring to any object or possession or garment which is in the way or a nuisance or unfit for purpose. In her PTSD distress, Clementine herself feels detached, dislocated and unfit for the life to which she has returned, a life in which it is men who ostensibly call the shots and shape the narrative, and where she has no money and little status, outside her relationships with them.

The novel includes significant female characters but what follows – and I cannot chart details of the plot for the reason given above – is essentially an exploration by the author of the various and differing sorts of love which a woman experiences for the males in her life. How Clementine experiences and responds to these—whether the devoted love of husband, the passion of a lover, or maternal love for a son, and whether they are threat, irritation or support—provides the fabric of the tale. Blackmail adds a smattering of somewhat sordid spice. Clementine pushes back, and in the process has the possibility of reclaiming and reforming her life on her own terms. Will she have the strength to do it, and what will be the consequences for her and for the males?

The plot hinges at one point on a detail which the author wants us to accept but with which I have a moment’s difficulty. Clementine steps into the road and apparently causes a man on a motorbike to crash in avoiding her. Whether or not he could have avoided the accident if he’d been paying more attention is moot; she offers to pay for the damage. Since she has no money of her own and her husband is naturally concerned for her welfare, it would seem straighforward to hand the bill over to him and ensure that he pays, or ask him for the money and pay it herself. She surely has the strength of character to carry the day on this one. But apparently not, and much ensues. Perhaps, however, this is only that, a detail, and not one which should interrupt one’s enjoyment of an intelligent, affecting, well-crafted novel with a protagonist whom one cannot but like and wish well and, eventually, happy.

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