I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few books lately which have focused upon World War Two in differing ways. In The Unwomanly Face of War we had a non-fiction book focusing on the voices of women who actually fought in the war for the Soviet Union. In There Was A Time we saw a close knit community witnessing the affects the war had upon such a place. When I received Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn, I was really intrigued to read about yet another different aspect of the war and what it has done to those who lived through it. There are so many different voices and stories to be told, and getting to discover new aspects of such a monumental piece of history always amazes me.
Set against the backdrop of the struggling Northfield Military Psychiatric Hosptial in 1947, Walking Wounded is a novel which follows the lives of two very different men; one a doctor and one the patient. David Reece is a young man whose dreams of journalism were shattered with the start of the war. Despite its end, the war continues to haunt David, his traumatic experiences in Burma refusing to be left behind. Then we have Daniel Carter, one of the senior psychiatrists at the hospital and the man in charge of treating David Reece. Despite being the one who should be giving the treatment, Daniel has his own inner turmoil’s, suffering through both his own past and the terrible memories of his patients.
Walking Wounded is very different to many of the other war books I have read in that it focuses quite specifically on the psychological impacts of war time deeds and memories. It examines the science behind psychiatry at the time and the impacts this had on the treatment of those who served in the war. Mental health is something we’re still learning so much about as a society today, so to even consider how much more challenging it would have been for doctors who had very little previous research to go on, facing hugely traumatic experiences, is incredibly interesting. Although this is a work of fiction, the press release for this book is keen to stress the reality of the times and the vital medical research the author has undertaken.
This is a key element of the book which comes across very well, especially when the author takes the novel into the realms of such horrific treatment as leucotomies. For those who don’t know, this treatment involves cutting the nerve fibres in the frontal lobes of the brain in order to treat various psychiatric disorders. It was, as you may imagine, an extremely controversial procedure and one which is chilling to read about and even witness through the novel. The author very much looks at the ethic of such psychosurgery, providing a gripping commentary on the medical contexts of the time, as well as a critique on the war itself and the irreparable damage it does mentally and physically. When I think of something as brutal as a leucotomy I think of much more primitive and experimental medical times such as the Victorian period and its treatment of the likes of hysteria in women. To learn of treatments such as this which were done to those who gave their lives for their country is too awful to consider.
Indeed, I think it is the author’s ability to look the ugly truth so glaring in the eye which is the main strength of this book. Terrible things happened in the war. Terrible things happened to veterans after the war. As much as we might like to believe it, not everyone has a happy ending in life. As we see clearly here, not every patient is miraculously ‘cured’ through their treatment. In many cases the patients simply go from having ‘eyes full of terror, full of protest’, to ‘full of nothing . . . the profound silence when it was all over’ (p. 4). Some of these treatments quite literally take something away from their patients both literally and metaphorically, not actually healing but stripping away essentials.
Likewise, although not set upon the battlefield, the author gives us the grisly details. We read of how tank commanders were situated nearer to the hatch, having more time to get out as they watch and smell the others burn. ‘And you leave them to it. You hear them scream as you scrabble out’ (p. 80). It’s no wonder such traumatic events resulted in serious psychological issues for these people,yet they were expected to integrate seamlessly once more into society, a trophy hero to take the praise of the war effort whilst pushing aside the realities.
As you can imagine a lot of this book focuses heavily on the past and how memories can affect us. I think the author did a commendable job of portraying such memories to us. She uses differing techniques in her writing to try to get across the random and often aggressive flooding of memories which can be triggered so suddenly. What’s so interesting is that these moments do not rely solely on the use of flashbacks, but often work seamlessly side by side with the present timeline, showing just how confusing such moments can become. Her use of the multimedia technique was also very effective, with the likes of letters, notes and case studies all really authenticating the novel.
I think this is a very interesting and quite unique look at the Second World War and is a novel which you could analysis and study time and time again. Although enjoyable, I wouldn’t say that the overall result blew me away, and I did think the plot began to lack somewhat halfway through. Having said that, this is not a book to be read purely on the plot itself; the star of this book is really the themes and discussions which follows psychiatric treatments during this period and the impacts the war more specifically on mental health, as well as the developments in psychiatric care. If you’re in any way interested in the war then this is definitely one to pick up!
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.