Guest Review of The Reckoning

Chloe Vaughan from Waterstones Arndale Centre in Manchester joins us today for a guest review of The Reckoning by Clar Ni Chonghaile

With the centenary of Armistace Day on November the 11th of this year, Clár Ní Chonghaile’s third novel ‘The Reckoning’ is a bone shaking reminder of exactly what we’re commemorating. A captivating and emotional book about what living with the terror of war really means, Ni Chonghaile’s fresh perspective is just as relevant and powerful as that of Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker.

The novel begins with what appears to be a lavish woman ‘sipping wine as [she tries] to figure out if [she] killed a man’. Over the span of three hundred pages, she explains exactly why she thinks herself a possible murderer, to not just one but two men, and how she can freely ponder on a beach in France instead of from behind bars. Lina Rose, celebrated novelist and war correspondent is settling into her role of the introspective dying woman, and has set herself one final task; that of writing to her daughter, and explaining exactly why she gave her up for adoption all those years ago.

This novel explores real moral quandaries and tests. One the one hand, you see Diana’s attitude towards her mother, and on the other, you see Lina’s reasoning. Their dynamic is powerful and dividing because it is real; this novel could easily be one torn from the pages of someone’s memoir. The difficulty in choosing sides lies in their brief meetings, but it is Lina who is speaking, and it is mainly her story that we see. The heartbreaking conclusion serves to make the argument that much more conflicting, and I can honestly say that once finishing the novel, I don’t know what I would do in Diana’s shoes.

Lina begins her plea to see her daughter with an exploration of the Rose family. One thing that marks them is their time during the war, which effects them all in their own, very moving, ways. Lina’s father Henry, for example, fought at the Somme and brought back more than anyone could have ever expected. A quiet man who enjoys the peace of gardening, his PTSD is as typical to Lina as his hair colour;

‘I had already learned to be careful around my father. He would start at the slightest noise, his whole body expanding and then contracting into a hunched rigid shell. […]Of what Henry endured, Diane, you will have read. There are no secrets now but I believe neither poetry nor prose captured the reality.’

Henry was mum about the war, as the vast majority of other soldiers were. Lina explains that ‘it was as though they believed that if they refused to bear witness, the horror could not live. […] How else to deal with a period that exposed all that was base and cruel and savage into our psyche?’, but this silence would ultimately be starker than any words Lina could conjure in her not-too-distant future, and becomes an unfortunate foreshadowing of her own relationship.

Intermixed with her parents story, Lina tells of her own relationship with the man who would eventually become Diana’s father. Whilst studying at Oxford she meets the bold and straight-talking Robert, and their whirlwind romance was made all the more ferocious with the looming of yet another Great War, which would start soon after in 1939. Robert signs up to fight, with the war atmosphere of moral expectation, while Lina volunteers for the WAAF and becomes a writer for the Ministry of Information; a step that would unknowingly shape her life.

This is the beginning of what would be a traumatic and horrific time for Lina and Robert, and once the war is finished and they’re both relieved from their duties, it’s plain to see that the idea of normality is just one of the many things they lost in battle. For modern readers, these were tough chapters to read. Knowing what we know now, it’s difficult to watch both Robert and Lina struggle after the war, both separately and together, and have no support in place. Robert’s silence, and ultimately his death, leave Lina no room for thought but self-shame and anger at her own ignorance.

‘Robert started to disappear.[…] You will no doubt wonder why I didn’t see this for what it was- a clear indication that the man I loved was losing his grip.[…] I didn’t press him on what he was feeling because I was so eager to forget what we had been through’

Lina’s struggle then grows exponentially when her parents die unexpectedly and she is left alone with a young Diane and nobody in the world to help. This is where Lina makes the decision to try and redo her life, and get away from the ghosts of the old in any way possible. From here on, Lina runs from Paris, to Vietnam and eventually to Kenya to try and forget about her life before her mid-twenties, to forget about leaving Diane, but the past has ways of cropping up and surprising her. When Lina was clearing out her father’s clothes, she finds a letter in a coat pocket, and reveals the story that Henry kept tight to his chest during the war, and in a similar vein, meets a man in Vietnam who served with Robert and tells her of the horrors he faced. The juxtaposition between two generations of people who lived during the First and Second World War is heartbreaking, because, as it’s said throughout the novel with irony ‘never again’ happened again within the space of 21 years, and again with the same mistakes and same unnecessary losses.

In the final years of Lina’s life, spent with Dutch flower farmer Stijn and his daughter Else on the northern banks of Lake Naivasha, she begins to write her novels in the small peace she’d fostered. This is where she remains until Stijn’s death in a plane crash, the second of the two deaths mentioned in her first letter, which spurs her onwards to St Albans and away from another life she’d built, another gone in tragedy.

‘The Reckoning’ made me cry, laugh and fall in love with the characters over and over again, on Primrose Hill, in a bar in Saigon, and in the greenhouses north west of Nairobi amongst others, and is an eye opening reminder to live your life and throw yourself into it as much as you can. You never know when your entire world will be taken from you, you can never predict the twists and turns, the anguish and the elation, so you must do away with societal pressures, love intensely, and never forget how lucky we are to be alive.

For more information about the book click here