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This review is from: On Fire: A Novel of the 1950s (Hardcover)
Perhaps ironically the strength of this novel lies less in its fictional character than the insights it reveals of military experience in that "forgotten" Korean conflict. The author's recall of what it was like to be embroiled in the vicissitudes of attack and counter-attack, and entrapped in meshes of tension, hope, fear and frustration, is tellingly conveyed. Relations between the Yanks and Limeys (mutual astonishment), characteristics of the Chinese (always blowing bugles), the perils of frostbite (losing your skin peeling hands off an iced-up tank), confused perceptions (mistaking wallowing cows for enemy snipers) - these and many such snippets, plus the closely textured account of battle minutiae, all paint a tangible picture of early fifties Korea. Rather less tangible is the depiction of mess life and the relations between individual officers. In this respect there is plenty of material all right, but it is material diluted by its very breadth. The canvas is perhaps too wide, its figures too many to supply strong dramatic distinction. What it does do, however, is to give an authentic rendering of the day to day procedures, difficulties, triumphs, challenges - and sometimes absurdities, of combatants plunged in an alien terrain struggling doggedly to maintain a sense of balance and order amidst threat and uncertainty. It is a book that will undoubtedly strike chords with veterans of the Korean war, but is also likely to appeal to anyone with an interest in military history or in the social and political ethos of that period.