On the eve of William's enlistment in the British army during WWI his brother Samuel smashes William's head in with a stone. This unlikely start begins The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale. We meet two brothers: William, the elder, excels at everything whilst Samuel, the younger, is by general consensus a bit of a bad apple. They walk across Woodhouse Moor, Leeds, on the eve of William's enlistment. Their last conversation hits a raw nerve for Samuel and he snaps, finally doing the bad thing family and neighbours had been predicting for years, his violence hospitalising William for weeks.
On William's return to consciousness he finds underage Samuel not being protected by his family but rather shipped off to France with false papers declaring him of age, dispatched with a sense of good riddance. William is horrified. He realises his brother has lived in his shadow and understands (quite remarkably actually considering his injuries) his brother's actions in context. Now in a position to be medically excused combat he nonetheless goes off to France to fight and to find and save Samuel.
The majority of the novel is in France and Dinsdale's strengths are his historical and geographical rendering of trench, town and countryside. Whilst not totally convinced by the initial premise of the brothers' relationship their behaviour in the trenches is beyond simple cliches of saving and redemption, and a subtler portrait of very young men, the brothers and their comrades, under pressure emerges. The soldiers' differing concept of what they are fighting for, their different images of friends, family, hometown or country, and the interplay of all those differing loyalties, are fascinating to watch as they emerge through the characters.
The sense of violence and hatred beginning at home pervades the book. Friends and enemies are all on the British side, the encounters with Germans show them as human and sympathetic (though killed and killing) whilst the allied trenches simmer with blood lust amongst themselves. A friend from Leeds, Matthias, is an unusual character and his actions and reactions in respect of both brothers are an elegant transposition of the everyday boys' power struggles and rivalries relocated in the seething atmosphere of the trenches.
The narrative drive comes from a series of chases, brother after brother, friend after friend, and soldier after soldier. Over time Samuel becomes a more sympathetic character, an uphill slog for the narrative after the brutal start, though he is never particularly likable. Though why should he be? His likeability doesn't make his abandonment by family and country to the horrors of the war any more or less than what it is, a truly tragic waste of life.
The Harrowing is a dark and intriguing novel, driven by character, and drawing its power from that rather than from an easy display of war horror. It has many strengths but lacks consistency. It is nonetheless extremely readable and remarkable in combining an excellent portrayal of trench life with having something new to say about an experience so many novelists have gone over so many times before. Its chilling freshness is why you should read it.