Indian-born Sarita Mandanna was working long hours as in a New York finance company and conducting a long-distance relationship with her future husband living in Toronto and still managed to find time to produce her highly-acclaimed debut novel “Tiger Hills” an Indian family saga which I am convinced I had on my To Be Read shelves but cannot find (Does this mean that these shelves are getting out of control or was this book, as I now suspect, one of the victims of my Easter Book Cull?)
Anyway, to make up for me probably having taken this debut to the charity shop unread (I now want to read it) I decided to spend a few hours with her second novel, the very different “Good Hope Road”.
This novel plunges us straight into the mud and horror of the trenches of the First World War. Mandanna avoids cliché by having Obadiah Nelson as a narrator, an African-American who has enlisted into the French Foreign Legion. In his words the experience becomes as chilling as one would expect.
Central to the novel is his relationship with New Englander James Stonebridge and it is when these two characters are together that the novel really sizzles and when time runs out on this relationship I couldn’t help but feel slightly cheated. Parallel to Obadiah’s account is a third person narrative which follows James from the early 1930’s, back at home and part of the damaged generation, refusing to discuss his experiences and in a brooding relationship with his son. For the veterans the war is being lived over and over again, not just through shell-shock but through political issues, a march to Washington to get what is due through the much delayed Bonus Bill and also in the build-up to World War 2. There is a striking change of pace between the two narratives which is very effective. In the 1930’s sections Mandanna writes lyrically and vividly, but uniting the sections is the theme of hope; for survival during the war and for getting a life back together after it.
It is convincingly done and there is an epic sweep to this novel which works well. The historical events of America’s participation during the war and inter-war years are generally well incorporated into the plot. The focus upon Americans in the French Foreign Legion provides an original slant. All in all this is a solidly impressive second novel. I’m just going to recheck my shelves for “Tiger Hills” again.
Good Hope Road was published in the UK by Weidenfield and Nicolson in 2015. A version of this review was published in New Books issue 86 and on the Nudge website