Bodies of Men
What a pleasure to be able to introduce a novel I’ve been looking forward to ever since I heard about it last year via social media. And from a writer whose short fiction I have admired for a long time.
Nigel Featherstone’s publication record is even more impressive and varied than I knew: story collection Joy (2000); debut novel Remnants (2005); The Beach Volcano (2014)—the third in an award-winning series of novellas; libretto for The Weight of Light, a contemporary song cycle that had its world premiere in 2018; and short stories in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland and Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel has held residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River) and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy, and otherwise lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.
Here is the blurb for Bodies of Men…
Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family—a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.
‘A beautifully written, tender and sensitive love story told within the tense and uncertain context of war.’—Karen Viggers, bestselling author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife
Over to Nigel…
2 things that inspired Bodies of Men
For much of my writing life I’ve more or less plucked stories from the air: perhaps a story was inspired by snippet of conversation overheard in public; or maybe it was asking myself ‘what if?’ (a common question for a writer) and the narrative evolved from there. But Bodies of Men came into the world in a different way.
Back in 2013 a friend sent me an email out of the blue that said in its entirety, Apply for this, and then a link to a residency opportunity at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. I’ve spent much of my life being a pacifist (both politically and domestically) and I took to the streets to protest the first Gulf War. Why would I want to spend time in a military academy? I had also become concerned about Australia’s amplification of its military history for nefarious political purposes. Did I really want to add to that noise? Further, could a novel really combat the increasingly nationalistic narrative? The more I thought about it, however, the more I became intrigued by the idea of researching different expressions of masculinity under extreme military pressure. So I applied and somehow was awarded the residency.
I spent three months that year researching and writing in the Academy Library, which, according to UNSW Canberra, is one of the world’s best military resources. For someone who had doubted the wisdom of being on a military campus, it turned out to be a highly productive time!
Day after day I searched the stacks. I found that I wasn’t so much engaged by military strategy—the politically driven machinations of war—but then I came upon two books that moved me deeply. The first was Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, which was a joint-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for History. Using evidence that exists on files, Stanley brings to light the diversity of men who served in the First World War and reveals their various crimes and disgraces. The book includes a paragraph about a man called Thomas Chilton, who was born in Scotland but enlisted in Melbourne; he was a former member of the British regular army, so was valuable to the AIF. Chilton went on to be wounded in Gallipoli and, despite facing a charge of stealing and receiving stolen goods, received a promotion. In Belgium, on Christmas Day 1918, Chilton was caught being rather intimate with a local man; a court-martial on St Valentine’s Day found him guilty of a serious demeanour, but he failed to appear at the dock to return to Australia. The AIF chose not to pursue him. Whatever happened to Thomas Chilton? Did he disappear in Europe with his lover?
The second book that burrowed into my bones was Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War by Charles Glass (2013). In a refreshingly compassionate way, Glass tells the story of three servicemen—two US and one British—who found that they could not fully commit to serving their respective armies. Perhaps many of us have the idea that a deserter is someone who is a coward, but Glass shows that the matter is much more complex. For example, one of the men Glass brings to life was able to perform well when he had respect for his superiors and they of him, but whenever he couldn’t find it in himself to respect his superiors he deserted. Was that an act of cowardice or courage?
While I would go on to read many books about the war experience, including poetry, the above two inspired the story that would become Bodies of Men. Of course, during the writing, and the rewriting, the story followed its own course, with James Kelly and William Marsh having free will, but I very much doubt the novel would ever have come into existence without those three months spent in the Academy Library, UNSW Canberra.
2 places connected with Bodies of Men
There are two important places in Bodies of Men, one I know intimately, the other only through the main characters. While the narrative focuses on the experiences of James and William when they are serving in Egypt, the story of their adolescent friendship is a significant part of their journey; that adolescent friendship reaches its conclusion while on holiday in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. This part of the novel is set in a slightly fictionalised version of a village where my own family holidayed regularly. The village is nothing more than a collection of garden estates—it’s in an isolated part of the mountains and there are no shops—but it is surrounded by national park, and the contrast between the lush English-style landscape and the natural wilderness is marked. I loved the place when I was a child, and I wanted to give what I would call in the novel ‘Mount Bellstay’ to James and William as the setting for a moment that would change their lives forever. But I’m being coy: while Bodies of Men is a work of fiction, I did base this part of the story on an event that I experienced when I was an adolescent and on holidays in the Blue Mountains.
(A potentially interesting side note: during the writing of Bodies of Men I discovered that Patrick White, who met his partner Manoly Lascaris while serving with the AIF in the Middle East in 1941, also had a childhood connection to the same Blue Mountains village.)
The second place that is important to the novel is Alexandria, where James and William spend much of their time. This Egyptian city is entirely fascinating: founded in 331 BC, it has a long and colourful—even magical—history, especially in terms of its connection to Alexander the Great; for a considerable period, Alexandria considered itself to be at the centre of the world’s intellectual and cultural life. As opposed to a certain Blue Mountains village, which I know so well (right now I could draw a detailed map of it from memory), Alexandria is a place that I have had to learn a lot about.
During the writing of Bodies of Men I arrived at two important decisions: I would only tell the story from the perspective of James and William, who, when not working, are essentially tourists; and that their perspective must be informed by experiences that can be found on the historical record—diaries, memoirs, photographs, handheld movie footage, official war art, among other sources. Through the eyes of Australian servicemen who documented their experiences of Alexandria, I have, to a certain extent, been able to experience the city as they experienced it, at least in an imaginative sense. Further, because Bodies of Men is a love story, and love stories are essentially about dreams, it has been my intention to render the Alexandria sequences with a dreamy quality. Love stories are also about the contrast between familiarity and unfamiliarity, and I hope that comes across on the page as well.
2 favourite things about Bodies of Men
All the characters in Bodies of Men are fictional, though they have been informed—directly, indirectly, or creatively—by what’s on the historical record: a diary entry here or a photograph there sparked something in my brain and a character started to come to life. As is the way with these things, some characters seem to appear more or less fully formed, and that was the case with Yetta Hillen, a Turkish-born Jewish resident of Alexandria who rescues James after a motorbike accident. The novel is James and William’s, but to a certain extent it’s also Yetta’s: there is a very good reason for why she rescues James, and there is a very good reason why she is nervous about having done so. Still, she and James develop a closeness that has been present since the first draft (of which I did many); for whatever reason, I have always enjoyed being in the presence of that closeness, and in the presence of Yetta as a person. Why? Although her life is very different to mine, I came to realise that we have certain things in common: our life trajectories have been from religiosity to atheism; we have found meaning in words on the page; and we have found peace in looking after a small garden. Although I have spent much of the past five years in the heads of James and William and have absolutely adored being part of their journey, often, when I think of Bodies of Men, I am with Yetta Hillen. She also good at giving advice. Here she is sharing some wisdom with James and William:
There are three types of courage. There is the courage to stay the course. There is the courage to admit, this is not for me. And then there is the courage to love. The wise person knows which type of courage they need, and when and why.
I write by putting a literal pen to a literal piece of paper, and I approach the first draft as an exercise in stream-of-consciousness; it is through the redrafting process that the story finds its structure and narrative spine. Before pen goes down on paper, I do know a fair bit about the characters, the story, and the core theme, but apart from that I allow myself to follow the energy in the story and try to just put one sentence after another. That means I sometimes go down dead-end streets, which is okay—it’s all a part of the creation of the novel—and sometimes I find myself writing about something that I don’t entirely understand but it feels as if there is something there, a life force that should not be ignored.
That happened with the pelican.
When in the Western Desert William receives a letter from Jillian Knowles, a friend from Adelaide, who tells him about finding an injured pelican on a beach. When she tries to help the bird, it scurries away and then disappears. What on earth did that mean? Indeed, an early reader of the manuscript wondered if the sequence should be removed. During the rewriting process I deleted many sections for a variety of reasons, but I always resisted getting rid of Jillian’s letter.
Long after the novel was acquired by Hachette—indeed, this was only a few weeks ago—I found myself considering the stained-glass windows in the Australian War Memorial. There are fifteen windows, each depicting a human trait during the First World War—‘comradeship’, ‘patriotism’, ‘loyalty’ etc. All traits are represented by a male form, except ‘devotion’, which is represented by a female form and includes ‘a pelican feeding her young from her bleeding breast, the ancient symbol of devotion’ (that from the AWM’s website). Uhuh! Was that why I felt that Jillian’s injured pelican needed to be in the story? In an unconscious way, was she trying to send William a message about the meaning of devotion, and its danger, and its ever-shifting nature? No doubt I’m not the best person to judge; readers will have their own interpretation. I’m just glad the pelican remains in the final version of the novel.
Perhaps Jillian can be the one who brings this post to a close, in the same way she brought her letter to a close:
The injured bird made me think of you, William, being such a long way overseas, wherever you are—in Tel Aviv, perhaps, or Damascus, or Cairo. None of those places mean much to me, I’m afraid. I just hope that you are safe and well. But it’s a false hope, isn’t it? You are unlikely to be safe, but still that is my wish for you.