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Worthless Men [Hardcover]

Andrew Cowan
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
RRP: 17.99
Price: 15.22 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

14 Feb 2013

It's market day in an English city two years into the Great War. The farmers are coming in from the country, the cattle are being driven through the streets and that evening a trainload of wounded soldiers is due to arrive.

At the local mansion, its new hospital tents to the ready, waits Montague Beckwith, himself a psychological casualty of the war. In the town's poorest quarter, Winnie Barley prays that Walter, her missing son, will be on the train (but that her violent husband is not). In the pharmacy, Gertie Dobson dreams of romance while her father keeps unsuitable men at bay. And everywhere is Walter, a ghostly presence who watches as the girl he loved from a distance is drawn into Montague's orbit.

Weaving together multiple viewpoints, Andrew Cowan creates a panoramic, extraordinarily vivid portrait of a place as individual as it is archetypal. Here is a community where the war permeates high and low; where the factory now produces barbed wire, the women are doing the men's jobs, and the young men are no longer so eager to answer the King's call. And here is the tragic story of a casual betrayal, and a boy who proved that those at the bottom of the heap - the worthless ones - could be the most valiant of them all.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Sceptre (14 Feb 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 144475940X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1444759402
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.2 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 719,091 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


A brilliant novel, original, powerfully written, and very moving (John Boyne)

Distinguished by its remarkable close focus on life in Britain and the families back home. From multiple viewpoints, Cowan - a highly talented but still under-recognised novelist - follows working-class teenager Walter, troubled officer Montague, and the girl who attracts them both, beautiful Gertie, the daughter of their local chemist-cum-vet-cum-abortionist. Both Montague and Gertie's father have a keen amateur interest in "eugenical science", which held out a crazed initial hope that the war would be good for the fitness of the species . . . memorable for its time-travelling density of period evocation (Phil Baker, The Sunday Times)

Provincial realism it may be; to suggest it's nothing special is too modest by half. (Guardian)

A wonderful and moving book, wholly original in its treatment of the war's bleak surrealism. I was completely transported. It's sensuous and funny and somehow manages never to be moralising. (Tessa Hadley)

Cowan's serious-minded project suggests, intriguingly, an un-spoken truth - that the lack of all those young soldiers on the home front meant a calmer, saner society . . . Yet this is no romanticised history - Cowan never lets us forget the earthy truths of life (Jonathan Barnes, Literary Review)

Andrew Cowan's fifth novel takes a loud subject - the First World War; its casualties and the disastrous effect it has on an English town - and quietens it with detail . . . it is heartening to see a writer with several books behind him take a risk. (Lesley McDowell, Glasgow Herald)

Packed with beautiful period details . . . His style is creative but the creativity serves the story and there's never the feeling, as can be the case, of the style getting in the way of the lives of these people. The result is a haunting, and often moving, record of life in a market town during the Great War. (Bookbag)

His voices ring so true they break your heart. This novel has the feel of an elegiac poem and is an absolute delight to read. (We Love This Book)

Book Description

A novel about the First World War that is as mesmerising as it is unusual, a triumphant new work by one of the most acclaimed writers of the 90s.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant depiction of life in 1916 10 Jan 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Worthless Men transports the reader to an unnamed market town in England in the year 1916 where many of the men have gone to fight in World War I and the war has changed everyone's lives. This town could be anywhere in England with a butcher, a chemist, the wealthy family who dispense largesse to the poor, the crowded damp houses and the men who settle disputes in the pub or with their fists.

The book is split into very short chapters which link together in an almost whimsical way, following each of the five characters memories of the past, as well as showing us the present. This device means that as the book progresses the reader has built up a picture of the town and its inhabitants in a similar way we usually get to know people by putting the facts of what they say and do together with the `reading between the lines' for the unsaid.

The book is written in the third person and two of the five main characters are interested in eugenics. Eugenics was respected at the beginning of the twentieth century and it is shocking to realise that some thought that the war was a way of cleaning up the gene pool thereby removing the worthless men. The theme of worthless men is strong throughout the book and different types of worthlessness are scattered amongst its pages.

I loved the style of this book; the gradual building up of a picture was immensely satisfying with every page of this 260 page book adding detail to this well-known historical period. After finishing reading the book I discovered that Andrew Cowen had recorded some oral histories earlier in his career which is probably why the feeling of authenticity is so strong.

I think this book would be an excellent for a Book Club.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Indictment on Indigent? 23 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Author Andrew Cowan opens and closes his unusual and complex `Worthless Men' on a Gala Day in a town with rural connections somewhere in England in 1916, and he skilfully moves narrative backwards and forwards. It is a multi-layered story told in the third person, yet it comes across as personal commentaries on the main protagonists. Numerous individuals are involved with most important being working class Walter Barley and his mother Winnie living in poverty, middle class pharmacist Claude Dobson and his over-protected daughter Gertie, and upper class Montague Beckwith who is suffering psychological damage after time at the front. But who are the worthless men?

Chapters are headed by these names and from their different perspectives all contribute to a penetrating portrayal of life only 100 years ago, and to evocative explanations on the impact of The Great War. Walter appears as a phantom figure and his experiences as a hard working boy and as a teenager going to war are used by the author to expose harsh realities of life at home and on the front. Andrew Cowan employs analogies with shifts between the carnage of war and poor handling of animals on market day or slaughterhouse scenes; and ironies where the local Beckwith factory that manufactured wire netting then makes barbed wire, or repressed women suffering domestic violence do the work of men away facing horrors of war.

An ongoing theme is the behaviour of supposed betters to the working class - sometimes altruistic, sometimes antagonistic, but often just ambivalent. In particular there is a thought provoking exchange of views between middle class Dobson and upper class Montague Beckwith with comparisons of selective breeding to improve farm stock against eugenics for enhancing human qualities.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Both the Macs VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Walter Barley, after attempting and being turned down several times before, finally manages to join up for the war. And after a while arrives home, alone, and wondering why no-one is talking to him. It's because he's dead, of course, for Walter is a ghost, overseeing his home, his family, his friends - his thoughts telling the reader much more that the spoken word could have done. I could have read the whole book through Walter's eyes, but each chapter is a little bit of the life of other characters. Montague Beckwith, his commanding officer - sent home with no outward wounds to show; Gertie, the pharmacist's daughter, whom Walter loved, and who gave him the white feather..... Dobson, Gertie's father; Winnie, Walter's mother, too many children, a little too much gin. A great cast of characters, well drawn. But.

I wish I had enjoyed reading this more. It has a lot going for it, not least the descriptions of the poor at that time in history. It is certain that you were better off being poor outside of towns and cities than you were if you lived in them. The area that Walter's family lived in, on the river, next door to a butcher and his slaughterhouse, with a shared midden(rubbish heap)and toilet in the yard, was nearly as hard to read about as the lice ridden and filthy conditions of the boys at the front.

I am not at all sure about this book. I felt something missing here. Every character has plenty to tell you, but as most of the book is written in the present "He walks down the alley"; "she offers her money", which I found irksome; and each chapter is about another character - which I normally enjoy - but this time found it very choppy, with no flow. It was as though the author had a great story to tell, but seemed unsure how to do it. Nevertheless, from knowing that Walter Barley is dead, the book does knit up the strands in the last chapter or so, and we found out how he died.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious, laborious style of writing
A very disappointing book. The sentences just went on and on and on. So full of overly-descriptive metaphors. And a some what hackneyed view of life at the time.
Published 4 months ago by Kaspar
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading
This is a short but very powerful novel about the effects of the Great War on members of a small Norfolk community. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Denise4891
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read
Unusual treatment that is interesting in its interpretation, but wouldn't call it gripping.Leaving aside the stated year (1916) it could have been equally been set in the... Read more
Published 6 months ago by laurence
4.0 out of 5 stars one war.. how it affected one small market town!
Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan for me was a good read though I have to say at times a very sad emotional read where we are told how through a day in 1916 in a small market town in... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Petra "I love to read"
5.0 out of 5 stars One of my top 10 novels of 2013
This novel must stand out amongst the many publications, both of fact and fiction, that will be on the shelves prior to the centenary of WW1 in 2014. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Sandford
1.0 out of 5 stars A terrific bore
This book was a huge disappointment. It has one central concept, death and delay and flogs it to death. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Dr. K. Patel
4.0 out of 5 stars Great if you enjoy world war 1
.This story was harder to get into as the topic area does mean it evokes many emotions. The plot looks into the return of wounded soldiers who are going to convalesce in a local... Read more
Published 8 months ago by G. Cook
5.0 out of 5 stars A diamond in the dross
I read a great many modern novels in the hope of finding something I can really enjoy - I'm usually disappointed; but this is a prince among frogs. Read more
Published 9 months ago by T. Russell
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting Read
It is 1916 and the first world war is already well underway. In a small town in Norfolk are the people left behind. Read more
Published 9 months ago by H. Pierce
4.0 out of 5 stars A grim read but it works
This is perhaps a more unusual novel about the First World War in that it focuses on a community back home rather than the trenches. Read more
Published 10 months ago by D. P. Mankin
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