Review — A Better Place, by Stephen Daisley

Reviewed by Jack Remiel Cottrell

People in the district would often say Roy Mitchell was not quite the same after he come back from the war. There was a twin brother, Tony. Killed on Crete in 1941. The hut he built when he returned was on a bit of flat ground above the Mangawhero Creek. He called it his whare. Corrugated-iron chimney on the south wall.’

A Better Place by Stephen Daisley is a WWII novel that is written beautifully, unflinchingly, viscerally, and all kinds of other adverbs. Each scene of battle contains all the horror of the opening of Saving Private Ryan and each death has the cruel banality found in Band of Brothers. Like that show, the book flips through tiny vignettes of soldiers. The protagonists are young men from Taranaki who volunteered to go to fight the Germans. Most of the book is from the point of view of Roy, who tells us that his twin brother Tony died on Crete. 

The immediate comparison is with The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, where the various characters are given their own little story, with one main character carrying us from before the war to after. The book often uses the same style of hidden point-of-view to hop from character to character in a single scene. But it doesn't feel as effective in A Better Place, because the narrative keeps coming back to Roy. 

Roy is the least interesting character in the book. Manny, the cruel joker; Sister, the bookish young man who could kill with a bayonet; the German doctor who amputates Tony's leg, the Nazi Bolshevik running the POW camp; or Tony himself are all more interesting. We quickly discover that Tony doesn't die on Crete, but we also know he doesn't come home with Roy. We know where Roy ends up, and it's pretty much the same place he started. He doesn't really change. Yes, his experience of Tony's death makes him perhaps a little more taciturn. His wartime experiences don't cause him to re-evaluate his father, who came home from WWI and had a breakdown. Roy says the same thing at the end of the book as at the beginning - his always-weeping father was an embarrassment. 

Most of the book swaps between the two brothers - Tony is taken from the battlefield to a POW camp where he spends years painting, and Roy fights through Crete, North Africa, Egypt, and Italy. 

The book is written in constant short sentences, conveying the staccato scenes of combat. It's hard to tell where anything is while the bombs are dropping and guns are firing. The cacophony and confusion comes across on every page.

There are many points where the language of A Better Place feels closer to a poem than a traditional novel, the feeling that we don't quite understand how we got here and why, so the only thing to focus on is what's happening on the page in front of us. 

Daisley shows not just the damage done by bombs and tanks, but also by the Allied young men who fought through towns and cities. They steal, rape, desecrate, and traumatise the locals whom they barely consider human. These horrors perpetrated by New Zealanders, Australians and Soviets are depicted in the same graphic detail as the brutalities of Axis soldiers. 

And yet, I don't think I've ever read a book with so much action in it where I spent so much time wanting something to happen. 

Perhaps I just wasn’t reading the book right - literary fiction often eschews plot in favour of language and theme. Roy’s lack of personal growth might imply that war doesn’t impart some greater wisdom, just greater trauma. There isn’t an upside to mass slaughter. Even the scenes of compassion and beauty are swamped by the all-consuming violence.

A Better Place is a lyrical depiction of brutality in its many forms. The writing is exceptional, and it’s worth reading for that alone - even if the story doesn’t feel as complete as the battles.

Reviewed by Jack Remiel Cottrell.