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on 18 July 2001
This is a truly great book - rich in detail, ambitious in scope, and thoroughly researched, it gets right under the skin of the aftermath of WW1.
The protagonist, Joseph Monrow, is an all-too-human veteran of the war - one of its many victims, despite having never quite made it to the front. His attempt to write the great anti-war novel is plagued by doubts - is he up to the task? Are his motives pure? He is full of self-loathing, aware of his own weakness and failures; yet his honesty keeps us on his side.
Perhaps the finest scenes in the book are the descriptions of Flanders after the war - a vision of the Wasteland. The clear-up operation, which seems to be grinding on forever, is claiming its own victims - the poor Chinese and Indian labourers who've been drafted in, many being killed by left-over shells; the prostitutes who service the transient servicemen; the locals who've turned to making 'souvenirs' out of bullet and shell cases for the visiting tourists (sorry, mourners).
There is a theme of doubles throughout; Joseph is shadowed by his lookalike, Hubert Rail. Whilst Joseph's response to the war is an idealistic pacifism, Hubert's is a nihilistic cynicism and decadence. Likewise the two key women in the book shadow each other - Tilly Laine, who deals with her brother's death through a Christian belief in noble sacrifice; and Marda, the German widow who feels only sadness and loss, yet seems to have an almost pagan belief in fertility and renewal. Joseph is, of course, torn between the two women.
Late in the book is a marvelous scene where Joseph talks to a blinded ex-officer who is organ-grinding near the cenotaph. Joseph tells him how people take off their hats, even when passing the monument on buses. The blind man wants to know what the memorial says on it. 'The Glorious Dead,' says Joseph. 'It's just right for them,' says the blind man. 'The dead, you mean?' says Joseph. 'No,' says the veteran, 'the fools what take their hats off as they pass and don't reach into their damn pockets.'
The book's ending is visionary - a sort of epiphany. This is the only sort of ending it could have, really. Joseph has already discovered, through his attempts to write the Great Book, that there can be no neatly-closed stories where the war's concerned. Such narratives cannot capture the random destruction of the trenches.
It's impossible in this space to do justice the richness and subtlety of this book. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Sebastian Faulks' 'Birdsong' and Pat Barker's 'Regeneration Trilogy'. I think it is at least the match of, and possibly superior to, both.
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on 6 October 2005
This is a superbly FRESH take on the Great War carnage, and I wonder whether the previous, weirdly vicious reviewer who gave it one star has actually read the book. Joseph is not a 'public school officer' but an ordinary grammar-school private; he stays not in a 'twee cottage' but in a mouldy, 'urinous', tumbledown place in an unattractive village whose chief glory is its garage - hardly 'pastoral'!! There is no 'mud' in Flanders because the action takes place during the drought summer of 1921 and the earth is hard and dry; and if the hero's interested in Freud it's because Freudianism was already well-established among the writing/artist fraternity by then. This book destroys all the 'Birdsong' cliches, while the hero, Joseph Monrow, is a brilliant portrayal of a very young, confused, but sensitive would-be writer living in a shattered time... not so different, after all, from our own! Even as a Belgian, I was not aware either of the clean-up operation and the use of colonial soldiers for the dangerous jobs, nor of the early 'package tours' for mourners to Flanders: this is an aspect of the war that is never talked about. I feel Thorpe's book has educated, entertained and enlightened me.
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To regard Adam Thorpe's "Nineteen Twenty-One" as a novel about the Great War (or even its aftermath) as many of its critics and indeed its advocates do is, I think, rather to miss its point. Certainly, any novel set in England in 1921 will feature and be coloured by the horrific events that left so much of Europe physically scarred and mentally traumatised for the best part of a generation. Despite the ever-present references to the War and its after-effects, however, the true focus of this book, to my mind, is the personal development of its central character, Joseph Monrow, an intelligent, well-educated, yet essentially ordinary young man, struggling to come to terms with the world in which he finds himself. Through reasons of conscience and various personal weaknesses but mostly as a result of pure accidents of timing Joseph misses active service in the trenches by a mere whisker. His subsequent struggles to resolve the conflicting emotions resulting from these circumstances naturally figure prominently in the story. But these are merely part of larger series of struggles, much as the Europe of 1921 is merely the backdrop against which a more personal and intimate drama unfolds.
In essence, Joseph's struggle is no different from the struggle of anyone in their late teens or early twenties, who, upon leaving the comfort and shelter of the family home find that the world is a big and frightening (to say nothing of complex and puzzling) place. Joseph's struggles are, in fact, the struggles faced by everyone trying to find their place in and make their mark upon the world. Indeed, his struggles are the struggles of all people of all times. His personal fight is not really to come to terms with the scale of the death and destruction in which he so narrowly avoided personal involvement, and which touched the lives of so many of those around him, nor really to find something earth-shatteringly new to say about them in the 'great work', which he is attempting to write. Rather, Joseph is simply trying to come to terms with himself.
He is, for instance, as disoriented and disturbed by his confused feelings for the people who enter his life during this story, and by his own struggles to muster his own writing skills for his own Great War novel, as he is by the sights and scenes of a maimed and wounded Flanders, and the people affected by it. Joseph's personal confusions and doubts are handled perfectly by the author, who interweaves the personal crises and moments of self-doubt in amongst the greater concerns for the world with a mastery and realism that is both painful (and yet a pleasure) to read.
Indeed, the real beauty of this book is not so much its subject or its plot, well-handled though these are, so much as Adam Thorpe's sparkling prose style, which, combined with his incredible eye for detail and originality of perspective, makes for some sharply observed portraiture of the paradox of peaceful rural life during chaotic times, as well as one person's struggle to place himself within it all. Throughout the book, images flow from Adam Thorpe's pen in a flood that appears impossible to stem, with total immersion being the inevitable outcome. The book is a pleasure to read from beginning to end, despite the necessarily disturbing events it references. Highly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 October 2011
Adam Thorpe couldn't write a bad sentence if he tried, but disturbingly, he gets pretty close in this novel, published in 2001. Joseph (nicknamed Jo-Jo), and his friend Baz are becalmed in the freakish August heat of nineteen twenty-one. They were both spared actual fighting, though they enlisted towards the end of the debacle that was the 1914-1918 War having earlier been excused service on medical grounds - a creaking chest for one, myopia the other. Up until then they had been students and had emerged with degrees - Baz determined to be a lawyer, Joseph equally determined to write the definitive novel of the war. One of the most moving passages is quite late in the book when Joseph is walking through London late at night:

"He was almost alone, crossing Picadilly Circus - builders' rubble and spill from roadworks in front of the poshed-up Swan and Edgar's... the lingering stench of hot tar, trampled flowers and petals around the fountain where the wrinkled red-faced flower girls had sat all day behind their huge baskets and would do for eternity. This, he thought, is the hub of the world..." The chaos of thoughts that emerges during this episode is brilliantly brought to life, as is the moment when he attains his room and looks out on "a flock of sheep, moving from one park to another. The noise rocked down the smaller street as if a sluice had been opened. The shepherd with his curled crook, the little busy black and white dog, the grey foaming backs of the flock, hundreds strong, moaning and shivering and bleating, flowing on and on."

The war is over, and Joseph and Baz take a trip to Ypres to look for the grave of Baz's brother Hanley. There they meet Tillie Lainer, looking for her brother's grave, and she and a german woman, Marda, provide what might be termed elusive moments of love/desire/sex for Joseph. The characterisation of this novel is faultless, each of the characters emerges whole and uncontained, though the novel seems not to know, at times, what to do with them. The oddness of meeting his double, provides a few moments of distinct unease, though later, in London he plays upon this resemblance, finding that his `twin' is a much more louche and `disreputable' person than himself.

I found this novel inferior to his marvellous novel based on the end of WWII, 'The Rules Of Perspective' It is altogether a more congested read because, it seems to me, we are in the head of a writer in the person of Joseph, whose imagination and feelings have deep artistic roots which he cannot altogether repress. This overheats the novel - ironically, given that it takes place in a heatwave, on the continent and in the Sussex countryside, and also in the dust-ridden streets of bombed and broken London. I felt at times that Thorpe was overcooking the atmosphere, especially in the form of the inconclusive and rather odd ending. Readers will need some patience and thoughtfulness to get the best from this difficult but often rewarding book.
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on 10 November 2015
What makes this book special is that it seems to be, however loosely, a fictionalised version of EXACTLY what happened to Henry Williamson.
Williamson is best known for his animal story, "Tarka the Otter", but he was a major novelist and war writer.
Williamson wrote, several times, about his experiences during the war, from late-1914 onwards, and the years afterwards.
Eventually he wrote a major sequence of novels spanning the Edwardian years, World War I, and beyond, including an important war novel (amongst others) "A Fox Under My Coat" (part of "A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight" -- 1951-1969).
His short text for a collection of vivid linocuts by an Australian ex-soldier, "Patriot's Progress", revealed the horrors of trench warfare on the Western Front.
Williamson visited the trenches, with his newly married young wife, shortly after the Armistice, and wrote about this: "The Wet Flanders Plain".
He repeatedly touched on his war experiences in other books, such as "The Story of a Norfolk Farm", a non-fiction autobiographical account of his experiences rejuvenating and modernising a run-down farm.
Maybe Williamson ought to be read, instead.
John Gough -- Deakin University (retired) -- jagough49@gmail.com
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on 4 November 2002
This is a marvellous book, written by an astonishingly talented writer. It will haunt you long after you put it down. I love the wistfulness, humanity and sheer beauty in his writing. It deserves to be read. I highly recommend it.
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on 21 December 2007
I believe I have at least a limited grasp on the horrors and enormity of The Great War. I have never really applied my thoughts to the aftermath. Adam Thorpe has put a perspective on post war 'fall out' and I for one thank him for the thought provocation. It's all there in black and white - the guilt, the misery, the ruin, the desperation, the greed, the madness.

On top of that I loved the book. The characters and scenarios were so believeable, so real. The style and the pace of this book kept me turning the pages.
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on 14 June 2006
Having read some of the wildly differing previous reviews, I find myself falling between the extremes. This book certainly has its merits - but knowing what Adam Thorpe is capable of, it must be judged a brave, failed experiment.

The problem is that the book just doesn't seem to know what it wants to be - Freudian exploration of the Oedipus myth? Lawrentian saga of confused provincial lad among sexual sophisticates? Stream of consciousness variations on T.S. Eliot?

Mystery story? Romance?

Of course, a book can be all of these things, but this one just never seems to tie them together satisfactorily. It may not be coincidence that the protagonist Monrow (a pretty unsympathetic and ultimately unconvincing character), spends most of the book anguishing over his inability to produce a convincing novel, constantly changing plotlines, characters and themes. By the end of the book he still seems no nearer to comleting the task - and I wonder whether Adam Thorpe sent "Nineteen Twenty-One" off to his publisher with a similar feeling that he hadn't pinned down quite what he wanted to say...

Ultimately, this book is the sum of its parts - Eliot, Joyce, Freud, Robert Musil, Lawrence, the War Poets et al - without ever really synthesising them into a satisfying whole.

It's a pity, because on the basis on some of his earlier works - "Ulverton" and "Pieces Of Light" in particular, Thorpe is capable of truly great writing.

I'll put this one down as an interesting aside and await his next novel with anticipation.
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on 3 September 2001
This is possibly the worst of the recent clutch of WW1 books, encompassing every cliche in the book and dogged by all of the emotional baggage of the late Twentieth Century's understanding of the Great War.
The plot focuses on the self-obsessed Joseph Monrow and his attempts to write the Great War book; one in which the war will be told truthfully, and not subjected to the distortions and deceits that post war Britain is trying to convince itself actually happened. This is a clever idea, especially as the role of Monrow is a bridging point between civilian and combatant.
Having accidentally gassed himself in a training exercise, Monrow feels he has "missed" the war, and is intensely aware of how this alienates him from both the civilian population and the soldiers who took part.
However, the potential of this idea becomes rapidly submerged as Monrow has so few redeeming features that it is almost impossible to empathise with him. As the book progresses, it becomes more apparent that he is hell-bent on creating his own vision of the war, one which rests far more securely on the ideas of pre-war nobility, chivalry and honour than what actually happened. The accounts of eyewitnesses are ignored or rewritten, Monrow wilfully ignoring what he hears in order to perpetrate his own understanding of the war. Despite this Monrow appear to have the attention span of a goldfish, and his personal vision is so insular and erratic that the reader is quickly forced to lose patience with him.
Having spent most of his time moping around in a typically pastoral setting, complete with twee cottage a suitably shell shocked neighbours, Thorpe transposes the setting to Ypres. Here the reader is subjected to all the worst clichés of aftermath; degeneracy, tawdryness and the usual authorial obsession with mud. Sassoons vitriolic "On passing the New Menin Gate" is quite clearly used as a foundation to describe the mawkishness of the pilgrimages to the trenches that became so popular after the war was over, when civilians desperate to locate the graves of people they had lost or even to witness for themselves what the Western Front actually looked like flocked to France on the first package holidays.
Clumsy comparisons like this are made to the war writers throughout; and without direct reference it is still easy to locate where the author has found his ideas. Repetition of Monrow's internal dialogue or description also becomes quickly tedious, especially of "lemony" Tillie, his insipid love interest.
The preoccupation of the late Twentieth Century to rediscover historical events blazes throughout this book, and it is loaded with modern preconceptions and assumptions. A notable example here is Monrows references to Freudianism, a theory that was still being treated with immense suspicion even within the medical world (W.H. Rivers being a pioneer in this respect). The view of young public school officers seems to have become the only available understanding of the war, centred entirely on the Western Front, and Nineteen Twenty One kowtows to this in every respect.
Overall a clumsy and tiresome rendition of what is quickly becoming an over-written aspect of the war.
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