The Triple Echo is a short novella, and its economy is a real strength.
Originally published in 1970, towards the end of Bates’ life, the Penguin version I sourced is 90 pages long, and has some rather nice line drawings by Ron Clarke – presumably because otherwise the page tally would be even shorter!
The book is set in 1942 or 1943. Alice Charlesworth is a farmer’s wife, living in an isolated small-holding. The location is un-named, but possibly Northamptonshire. Alice’s husband has been missing, probably a Japanese P.O.W, and she is living in the isolated farm, trying to eke out a living from selling her hens’ eggs
“The farm was one of those small half-lost farms that are cut off from main roads in summer by dense barriers of beech and chestnut and repeatedly in winter by mud and fog and snow. The red-brick two-storied house and its one barn had once been thatched. Bow both had a roof of corrugated iron that shone harsh grey in the summer sun and lay on them in winter like a rusting, crumbling crown”
I’m discovering this is a real hallmark of Bates’ writing – he makes the reality of setting absolutely real – and so he does for his characters, who however much they might fall into recognisable types, are also fully fleshed and individual.
Alice’s present life is grim and unremitting. She is struggling single-handed to keep things going, and is fiercely protective of her land
Into her solitary existence comes a young squaddie from a nearby Army training camp. Barton, like Alice is lonely and isolated. He is not a natural for the army. He is also a farmer’s son, and intensely missing his own Oxfordshire home. He walks the countryside in his time off. Alice has become harsh, suspicious and fierce. Barton is younger, with an innocence and sensitivity about him The two discover an attraction. Alice softens and reengages with her femininity, whilst Barton takes on tasks which her missing husband would have done, like mending tractors. Barton decides to go AWOL from his hated squadron, and the two are driven into a complex subterfuge to hide him from capture. What started out of passion and mutual need however, quickly becomes a trap for both, since both are now complicit in Barton’s desertion from the army.
Bates explores the unravelling of an illicit, co-dependent relationship, and the shifting power balance between the two central characters. But the most interesting dynamics are around a shifting sense of gender identity. Now this is something very much in current awareness, but at the time of this book’s writing, I think Bates was exploring something quite shocking.
Into the uneasy, troubled, trapped relationship between Alice and Barton comes, like some kind of provocation of mythic destruction from a Greek tragedy, a blustering, crude bully of a sergeant, stumbling across the homestead purely as a result of a map-reading error
What I found particularly interesting in this short, extremely powerful novella – was how much Bates makes the reader’s imagination work. The major cataclysmic event is never described. The reader knows where things are heading, and so does Alice, though nothing is ever spelt out.
A short novel of a hundred pages, which contains line drawings of scenes and characters sounds rather quaint. But H.E.Bates is rarely quaint. This story tells of the unravelling of a love affair between a married and somewhat elemental farmer's wife and an Army deserter during the war. It is particularly interesting for exploring the fluidity of character and the imperceptible boundaries between one gender and another. Bates was handling themes which were not often discussed during his time or dismissed as a result of weakness or corruptibility of character. In the background is the inexorable hand of fate moving the drama toward a tragic conclusion.
The story begins in 1942. Alice Charlesworth has been looking after her small farm since her husband joined the army and has been away at the front. The first words of the novella reveal that he has had the misfortune to be taken prisoner by the Japanese and Alice does not know whether she will ever see him again.
Tired and lonely, Alice forms a friendship with a young soldier from an artillery unit which is training nearby. It is a friendship which soon leads them into forbidden territory with tragic consequences ...