Jim McFarlane is an Ottawa teacher stuck in what he calls “an interim life” with “an interim wife.” He wants more. He wants an opportunity “to prove himself,” to show what kind of man he really is. The Second World War is raging, so McFarlane signs up, despite the protestations of his wife, Marianne.
Leading troops across Italy, driving the Germans northward, Captain McFarlane soon comes to realize he is not the swashbuckling hero he imagined himself to be. The death of every comrade shakes him to the core. He panics in battle. He calls for liquor to calm his nerves. His subordinates have to give him orders. He simply does not have what it takes. In essence, this is a brutal story about the unravelling of a soldier who is, at his core, an ordinary man unsuited for extraordinary challenges.
Montreal writer Matthew Murphy’s debut novel is told in prose that is muscular, explicit, disturbing, and yet so poetic that it can leave the reader dazed and breathless. Not for the faint of heart are the many apocalyptic, hallucinatory scenes of dying men calling for their mothers, human intestines hanging from tree branches, or descriptions of “mangled meaty mass[es] of torn flesh.”
A Beckoning War is what once would have been called a “man’s book”: a hyper-masculine story of soldiers bonding, competing, and fighting in an unending hell. The women in the book are off-stage wives and girlfriends back home, or cast as cold-hearted villains: bored with being alone, they write Dear John letters that render their broken-hearted recipients on the front lines suicidal.
Murphy’s generally excellent novel has a recurring flaw: a tendency to drag out cinematic descriptions, clever similes, and moving metaphors. Did we, for example, really need to spend an entire page on the disgusting odours of a military latrine? Despite some overwriting, however, there is no denying that A Beckoning War is the product of an amazing new talent. Will a sequel emerge from the novel’s ambiguous ending? Surely, whatever Murphy writes next will also be a book to devour.