Province of Danger by Ray Grover (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2018), 448 pp., $34.99
Ray Grover’s latest excursion into narrative history poses an interesting conundrum. Does the reader approach Province of Danger as a work of historical fiction or a narrative history of New Zealand during World War Two? Does the book blend the two or is it merely a work in search of a clear identity?
After reading the sequel to Grover’s widely acclaimed story of World War One, March to the Sound of Guns, I am still undecided. Province of Danger rejects a defining label, especially when historical narrative has become a performance manipulated by the extroverted hands of David Starkey or Simon Schama.
Ray Grover, author and historian, was definitely no academic showman. He obviously viewed his subject as a rigorous discipline. The former chief archivist of Archives New Zealand and trustee of the National Library dealt with facts throughout his long writing career. He carried a personal and professional commitment to detail and accuracy. However, this also means that a confrontation between the historian and the novelist is inevitable, especially when it involves a book set against such a complex sweep of comparatively recent history. Grover resolved the problem by using a quartet of fictional characters to chart the unfolding impact of the war on individual and collective lives. These characters can be seen as commentators and observers: a twentieth-century Greek chorus to comment on and mourn the tragedy of war.
The writer who describes War and Peace as one of the greatest books he has read is adamant that a writer can negotiate what is effectively a narrow line between fiction and non-fiction. But Grover would have been the first to admit that he was no Tolstoy. ‘I don’t let insight and imagination range beyond the bounds of what research has revealed. The validity of a documented historical novel will rest on two factors – the depth of research which has gone into it and the quality of characterisation and writing,’ he once said.
Province of Danger continues the story begun in March to the Sound of Guns. The four central characters from the first book are now in a world increasingly divided along political, philosophic and social fault lines and sliding irrevocably towards a second world conflict.
The book begins with Nelle Carrington’s return to New Zealand with her young son. Widowed during the war, she meets landowner and aspiring Labour Party politician Rolleston Maling on the voyage home. Their encounter – and subsequent marriage – re-introduces us to Frank Butler, the schoolteacher and infantry officer; Jim McDonnell, left-wing activist and army NCO; and Harry Patterson, whose experiences as a sniper during World War One have transformed him into a convinced pacifist. Each has been deeply scarred by his experiences in World War One.
As the story unfolds, the book’s cast rapidly expands to include imaginary and real historical figures playing their roles in settings ranging from New Zealand in the Great Depression, to the Spanish Civil War, Weimar Germany and, finally, the battlefields of World War Two. Underpinning the expansive plot are the signs that New Zealanders, previously seen as a nation of Little Britons, are gradually seeking to stamp their own clear identity in the war-ravaged world.
Province of Danger is a summation of Grover’s skills as both a historian and a storyteller. His knowledge of the extraordinarily complex mesh of facts, detail and events is the fuel that drives this book. Here’s the rub. Province of Danger is so densely packed with detail that the characters lose their individuality beneath the flood of unfolding military and political events. Perhaps Grover intends to reinforce the perception of ordinary men and women swept up into a vast uncontrollable machine. Whatever the intention, his characters often appear to be encased in a rigid shell of historical detail, unable to break free, straitjacketed by dates, times and strategic detail.
If Province of Danger is to be seen as a work of historical fiction, it must draw inevitable comparisons with other novels set in the same period. It also demonstrates the hazards of blending fiction and non-fiction. While historical detail provides the novelist with a firm foundation on which to construct a book, it should never be allowed to smother the human context.
In her two magisterial war novels (The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) Olivia Manning demonstrates how it is entirely possible to project actual events through the minds of fictional characters to the extent that the reader can become emotionally involved in their lives. When death intervenes, particularly in the closing chapters of The Levant Trilogy, the reader should feel something akin to emotional shock when confronted by the loss of a character they somehow know so well. This is the power of good historical fiction – to portray characters, both real and imagined, as clearly defined and believable human personalities rather than detached one-dimensional stereotypes. As British author Hilary Mantel observes, the writer holds the power to bring the dead back to life.
On another level, Herman Wouk’s fictional World War Two extravaganzas, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) might be overblown literary Hollywoodese but nevertheless, they are books where individual responses to war are clearly drawn, albeit in emotional technicolour. As someone once commented, there is nothing quite as potent as cheap music when it comes to novels set in wartime.
Province of Danger is unquestionably a well-written and carefully constructed book. However, it often seems burdened by the sheer weight of historical fact and detail, and a reluctance to loosen the tightly controlled narrative. Emotions appear stifled, dialogue becomes rigid. Occasionally the carapace cracks and we glimpse moments where some emotion surfaces. Jim McDonnell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War reflect his reactions to the brutal realities of life outside political ideologies. Harry Patterson the pacifist activist emerges as a man every bit as courageous as those fighting war on a different front. In comparison, I felt curiously detached from Nelle Carrington’s stereotyped upper middle-class round of good works and political drawing rooms; while Frank Butler’s distinguished wartime military career often seems to be generated by fortuitous encounters with assorted Allied generals. In an earlier part of the book, apparently to portray the growing threat from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, Grover dispatches Frank Butler to Berlin (by the night express, naturally) where, in a strange coincidence, he literally bumps into a Prussian general straight from central casting. It is a literary artifice and one that does not quite work. General von Witzleben is a mere cliché rather than a believable character, mouthing platitudes about Hitler being ‘a lout, leading a gang of louts. He will need to be controlled. But enough of politics.’ Ahh, but we all know that he will not be constrained. The Eastern Front, a show trial and a noose of piano wire possibly beckon, Herr General.
Meanwhile genuine historical characters in Province of Danger play what a film producer might call ‘walk-on parts’. Michael Joseph Savage, Fintan Walsh and generals Bernard Freyberg, Kippenberger and Montgomery briefly appear to make their curt, stiff utterances before disappearing like so many hazy holographs.
If, according to Grover, the validity of a documented historical novel rests on three factors – the depth of research and the quality of characterisation and writing, then Province of Danger partially succeeds. It is obviously a well-written, studiously researched book by an acknowledged military historian. It is also a story worth telling. But for the reader approaching it purely as a historical novel, it is much less successful.
Having reached war’s end, the book and its protagonists find themselves in post-war New Zealand confronting the future in a vastly changed world. Nelle, Jim, Harry and Frank have survived the war to confront the challenges of peace. Meanwhile, their readers are possibly drained by the demands of more than 400 pages of densely packed, emotionally repressed narrative. There is nothing essentially wrong with Province of Danger. There is much that is right. Here is a solidly written and factually accurate book, one that military historians and readers absorbed by the Second World War will read and possibly enjoy. But I suspect that any reader seeking an emotionally engaging exploration of war’s human sorrow and pity will find it a frustrating experience.
CHRISTOPHER MOORE is a Christchurch-based freelance arts writer and book reviewer. He is a former arts editor and assistant literary editor for the Press. During more than 40 years in journalism, he worked as a senior feature writer focusing on foreign affairs and politics, working on assignments in Australia, Hong Kong and China. He has received several awards for his work, including a New Institute for International Affairs award for foreign affairs writing and New Zealand media awards for his work reporting the arts and literature.
Landfall Review Online and Otago University Press note with sadness the passing of Ray Grover on 23 January 2019. A true gentleman of letters, he is greatly missed.