The Road Between Us – Nigel Farndale
The Road Between Us is the next instalment as it were in Transworld’s second annual Historical Reading Challenge and is very different from Hereward: End of Days. Intertwining two plotlines, the book follows father and son Charles and Edward Northcote and explores the differences and similarities between them. The former an RAF officer dishonourably discharged in 1939 for being caught in a hotel room with a German man, the latter a FCO official who’s been held hostage in Afghanistan for eleven years and struggles to return real life.
There was a lot to like in The Road Between Us. From the positive portrayal of the ‘gay experience’ in the 1940s (though how accurate this is, I’m not sure), the characterisation of all the characters, and the parallels between certain aspects of Britain’s leadership between the 1940s and today.
In particular, the way that Anselm (Charles’ much more engaging lover,) experienced life in a Concentration Camp. While Farndale doesn’t shy away from the horrors that existed, the character he has created in the Commandant, engaging and almost relatable until he rides down a prisoner and kills them with his sabre, is one of the best Nazi Villain’s I’ve ever come across. Now, there’s plenty of room for debate about whether or not showing the more human side of the Nazi’s hierarchy is appropriate or to be praised, but I think that Farndale has done a good job of doing so, regardless of its propriety.
In regard to the present day side of the story, the current-ness of The Road Between Us appealed to me most I think. I have a perception of politically oriented fiction that it is still stuck firmly in the Blair years. I don’t know what I’m basing this on, as to the best of my recollections I’ve never read any books like it before. The best I could guess is to say that to an outsider it seems as though Robert Harris codified the genre and thus everything that comes after him is still using the same setting he did. Either way, the present day The Road Between Us is definitively set in the last couple of years. Farndale has taken some liberties with the political landscape; an election happens mid-2013 and though no names or parties are mentioned, the incoming Foreign Secretary comes off more as Theresa May than Yvette Cooper or Harriet Harman. However, these are broadly irrelevant, as most of the political side of the plot is relating to the Civil Service, a body that generally stays constant throughout elections. Outside the political world, it’s definitely 2013. Edward consistently struggles to come to terms with the changes that occurred during the eleven years of his captivity, being bewildered by the development of things like YouTube or Facebook, or even the change in hosts of Test Match Special; something I can’t relate to, but thought added to Edward’s characterisation wonderfully.
If there is a major problem with The Road Between Us, it’s that the climax and final revelation feels a little rushed and incomplete almost. There are hints throughout the novel as to who was responsible for Edward’s release, so that for most of the last few chapters it gets a little frustrating at how little the characters know, in contrast to how it’s been spelt out for the reader. That said, the reasons for the character’s actions are a little more murky and I don’t think the explanation is really clear enough to do it justice. Particularly as there is some rather confusing justification going on, at which point I must admit I struggled to figure out who was who. More importantly, I don’t think that the climax of Anselm’s story, considering I felt he was the most compelling character in the story, did him justice. We saw how it ended, but not from his perspective, so it lacked the emotional impact I wanted.
That said, The Road Between Us is a very good book, and one I’d definitely recommend, despite the ending.
As a final note, I wouldn’t normally comment on something like this, but there was something about the physical copy of the book that was particularly aesthetically pleasing to me. The dust-jacket felt lovely to touch, particularly because it was matte, rather than glossy as many books are, and the binding gave the book a nice weight.