I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now. My fellow Tolkien quester Libromancer’s Apprentice gave me the heads up on this novel back when it was still available for preorder, and… yeah. You know how sometimes the stuff you really want to read gets buried under Mount TBR, and then it requires a Hobbit and a team of Dwarves to go looking for it again? That’s kind of what happened here. Thankfully, no dragon. But within the pages, there was definitely a war.
Rumor marketing erroneously put Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land as a novel that essentially fictionalized the life of his famous grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien. This book is so much bigger than that. Our protagonist, Adam Raine, served in the Great War at the Somme for the British as did the elder Tolkien, and they both enjoyed to read. That’s where the similarities stop. Raine is more of an everyman, standing in for the so-called “lost generation” who served in the war, honoring all those who experienced what none could imagine.
The Somme is but one part of this novel. In a way it serves as part of a transition for both character and country. The story opens at the turn of the 20th century, covering the years before the Great War. Adam Raine is the son of a coal miner, and through his eyes we see what that life entails as he bears witness to the dangerous conditions common to that profession as well as the culture and class separation of the era. Through a series of events that I won’t spoil, he is able to experience how the upper class lives, never quite fitting in there either. But when the war breaks out, everything that characterizes British life at every level turns upside down and inside out. It is the passing of an era, the violent birth of the modern world.
In each part of the story, Simon Tolkien takes the details of life and war, framing them with an unflinchingly human perspective. The result is a story that lives and breathes as though a century past was only yesterday. Many have compared Tolkien, not with his grandfather, but with Dickens. More accurate, perhaps, I don’t think that’s a fair comparison either. Simon Tolkien most definitely stands on his own, his voice speaking for an entire generation as much as for that of a single character. No Man’s Land is a novel that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been gratuitous, lurid… exploitative. Instead, Tolkien offers the hand of restraint, putting a personal touch on every detail, offering humanity instead of horror. Somehow the full impact is still there all the same. The result is, to my mind, a heartfelt work that exemplifies what a conscientious writer can truly bring to the table. This is a must-read novel that will stay with the reader for all the right reasons.
It is my honor to have engaged with this story.
Take a bow, Mr. Tolkien. Bravo.