“there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.”
From its very first sentence—“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”—it is clear that Laird Hunt’s Neverhome* is a masterful addition to writing about the Civil War.
Like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Neverhome is a slim volume. It manages to tell an epic story of war, deception, madness, and even, sometimes, very great beauty, in less than 250 pages, which is just a stunning feat. Mr. Hunt’s command of language is incredibly good; his swift portraits of his heroine’s world are quietly stunning, each one more impressive than the last. “Impressionistic” is an adjective that comes to mind. If I could choose a director to turn Neverhome into a film (and good lord, someone should!) I’d choose Terrence Malick and it would be a perfect match.
Constance Thompson, who renames herself Ash when she decides to leave for war, is a singular woman, canny and strong and very brave. As she recounts her war experiences, she doles out pieces of her past, leaving out just enough that the reader is left desperately wishing for more ways to understand who she is and what made her.
As Ash joins the Union Army, sees action, and begins a circuitous route home, we are introduced not only to the fighting men and less savory characters you’d expect to find in a war novel, but also to other unusual women. Some, like Ash, are disguised as men. Some are waiting out the war the best they can at home, and others are on the run. All of them are fascinating, and it’s glorious to find a war novel in which half the characters are women.
Ash is plainspoken and careful, clearheaded and well-intentioned, but still unprepared for what exactly war will be like. When Ash is issued her rifle, accurate enough to “that you could use it kill a quarter mile away,” she thinks,
That was something to think about, How you could rifle a man down was looking at you and you at him but never see his face. I hadn’t figured it that way when I had thought on it back home. I had figured it would be fine big faces firing back and forth at each other, not threads of color off the horizon. A dance of men and not just their musket balls. (5)
Ash proves to be an excellent shot, and draws the attention of the men in her regiment, more attention than she’d like, given what she’s hiding. She finds calm and benevolent interest in the form of the regiment’s colonel, who keeps an eye out for her, so far as that goes; after all, Ash says, “death was the underclothing we all wore.”
An injury leads Ash not to death, but to her own particular version of hell. I won’t go into the specifics, since I hope you’ll discover Neverhome for yourself, but suffice to say that the second half of the novel is especially harrowing. Mr. Hunt’s pacing is impeccable, and keeps us wondering to the very end if Ash’s odyssey will ever end in homecoming.
Neverhome is a gorgeous, spellbinding book. Highly recommended.
And a special shout-out to Cleveland: Laird Hunt will be at the Beachwood Library on Tuesday, September 23.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.