(Penguin: Michael Joseph, 2012, 480 pages, ISBN 9780718158989 )
‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred’. It’s a line I’ve been familiar with from childhood, long before I properly knew what the Crimean War was, or what the Charge of the Light Brigade really meant. I may even have known the names of Raglan, Cardigan, Lucan and Nolan. But the common soldiers, the men who struggled on the battlefield, were hacked and blown to pieces in the attempt to drive the Russians from the Crimea? No. Much like Berridge herself says here about the film The Charge of the Light Brigade,
the story as I’d heard it seemed to have no heart.
This one does.
It’s 1854, and private Harry Ryder is just one of hundreds of soldiers in the Allied Armies moving towards Sebastopol. But Harry bears the British army a grudge. Holding them responsible for his father’s death and the uncertainty of his own prospects, he’s openly and damningly critical of their innate incompetence. Yet there’s something more insidious than that in their ranks – something that leads men to destruction and could lose them the war. Brought together by chance, four very different men and one woman set out on the dangerous path to uncovering the truth – before it’s too late.
This is an action-filled novel – covering just a few months of the war – that crackles along at one heck of a pace. Hard to put down, and when I did, I’d often find myself returning to it a few minutes later. All the major characters are fictional, with the exception of Colonel Doherty; and there are, of course, brief appearances from men such as Cardigan and Nolan. But the focus of the novel is those in the ranks, which gives a very up-close and personal view of what was really happening. There’s a wealth of detail here – Berridge obviously knows her stuff and integrates it very well. Occasionally I found myself embarking on a search for military-based words that even my dictionary didn’t have, or looking for a translation of cant phrases such as ‘on the shake lurk’, but as these added a real sense of the period, I wasn’t going to complain.
I really enjoyed Berridge’s style, which not only draws you along with its flow but manages to be powerful, almost muscular, and graceful at the same time. She doesn’t flinch from describing the carnage of war, and the descriptions are visceral and often harrowing. But we also get to see the heroism and friendships that persisted in spite of all this – in particular the friendship between the five main protagonists.
One of the strongest points of the novel for me was the characterisation of these five; all well-rounded, all individuals with their own unique narrative voices, and with such realistic inner lives that it’s impossible not to empathise with them. I particularly like the balance Berridge strikes with both these and others. Harry, for example, is a captivating protagonist, but we know he’s far from perfect; whilst a man we may see as a tyrant is shown to be as human as anyone else – and Berridge made me absolutely believe it. Another plus is that these are not prim and proper Victorians but real people we can understand; yes, they have principles, they have religious faith, but this always seems genuine, and it doesn't preclude some characters swearing, enjoying their rum ration, and having a fondness for innuendo, either.
On a more practical note, three maps at the front of the book are extremely useful for placing the action, in particular those two which show the location of and routes taken by certain troops. A Historical Note at the end gives some of Berridge’s source material, as well as describing the genesis of the story, which is highly interesting in itself. I’ll leave you to find out why!
A superbly told tale of the Crimean War with a twist of mystery – I’ll be looking out for the next!