It's been a long time coming but at last we seem to have a modern Riddle of the Sands and an author well up to writing it.
It's not the same of course but the intrigue is comparable - if not even deeper. Skeletons for Sadness is about sailing, spying, loving and war and is pretty good on all four: clearly the author (better known for his successful military biographies and histories) is at home with the wide range of his subject and thus has been able to mastermind a fascinating story of life in the Falklands before the 1982 war - and a bit during it. Through this novel - and almost as a sideline - we discover some real truths about the background to the conflict. Here are embarrassments not detailed before by historians and yet, from all accounts, absolutely true. Indeed, so embarrassing that they could, perhaps, only have been told in a novel! Read deeply and you will find described new depths to which the British Foreign Office (under Maggie Thatcher) was prepared to sink to allow the Islands to change hands without too much of a murmur! The FCO's concealed tactics are revealed - OK, it is a novel but one so obviously based on hard facts that it is quite frightening.
Some of the sailing scenes and descriptions are beautifully evocative - I've not seen nautical writing quite like this for some time - and the maritime special forces and war aspects are equally as stunning: some of it seriously spine-chilling as we follow the two main characters (one trying to run from his past and the other not knowing she had a past to run from until it was almost too late) in their work in both peace and war.
Of course the 'real' author - according to the publisher's blurb - was intimately involved in all these aspects of the Falklands conflict and had lived and explored there before that war but, nevertheless, these are wonderfully crafted descriptions and vignettes. The fictional characters are 'real', believable and deftly drawn: so well done in fact that the whole book has one wondering whether or not this story really did happen.
Unusually for a novel Skeletons for Sadness is beautifully illustrated (apparently by one of the 'fictional' characters) - again giving the impression that this really is the true story behind the 'real' author's work among the hundreds of islands that make up the archipelago prior to the Argentinian invasion. Although difficult to imagine a sequel let us hope that the undoubted success of this, his first novel, will encourage him to write more.
What is plain is that it would make - in the right hands - a first rate, full-length feature film in the mould of, say, The English Patient or Captain Correlli's Mandolin. The personal relationship of two opposing characters cooped up together and unwillingly in a small boat in some of the most unpredictable seas on the planet (and both facing their own, disparate pasts) is a fascinating study in human reactions which even more experienced novelists sometimes fail to achieve. The clash of loyalties and patriotism is uniquely explored in a manner I have not seen before and this, backed by a clever, most unusual, intriguing story line, make it a mature novel worthy of high praise.