First published in May 2012.
Dead Man’s Embers follows Strachan’s wonderful debut novel The Earth Hums in B Flat. The novel takes place two years after the end of the First World War in a relatively small town in the Welsh countryside.
The protagonist of the novel is twenty nine-year-old Rhiannon Davies, known to all as Non. She is the wife of Davey, a man who fought in the war and returned to Non in an almost unrecognisable state: ‘The War has taken her husband as surely as if it had killed him, and returned a stranger to her in his place’.
Non wakes one morning to find Davey crouched beneath the kitchen table, ‘shouldering an imaginary rifle’ and reliving the terrors which he was catapulted into during his time in the trenches. She desperately tries to keep this occurrence from their children – teenagers Wil and Meg from Davey’s first marriage, and seven-year-old Osian, a ‘shadow child’, taken in by the family when his young mother died. Osian shows little emotion and does not communicate with those around him, a fact which Non and Davey try greatly to ignore. Wil is kindly and compassionate, always trying to make those around him as happy as possible, but Meg seems his antithesis in many ways. She is a selfish girl, seen by others as ‘too young, and too cross and too silly’.
The novel has an impressive scope, seemingly aiming to highlight the effects of war upon a multitude of different people. Since the war began, the lives of the Davies family have altered greatly. Davey, once softly spoken and kind is snappy and headstrong on his return, and Non holds many secrets. Her situation is sad at times: ‘… she has no idea how to begin to fight back, how to begin to find the Davey who loved her’, but she is not always a likeable character. She is judgemental of everyone around her and is rather cruel and selfish at times.
A third person present tense perspective has been used throughout Dead Man’s Embers. Although this technique gives Strachan the ability to follow several characters and highlight their thoughts and feelings, Non is the sole focus of the narrative. Other characters are included only when they interact with her, making them flat and unrealistic in consequence. Every last one of the characters seems lacking, not fully developed enough to be believed. A good example of this can be found when one takes Davey’s mother, Catherine Davies, into account. She is referred to by her full name without fail throughout, and is consequently seen as a remote character. This third person perspective is distancing and the reader is unable to know any of the characters because of it.
Strachan evokes a somewhat chilling atmosphere from the outset. She perfectly captures the fear which has so encompassed Davey and the way in which his new persona has affected him and his family. Although the novel starts off in an intriguing manner, the rest of the story falls flat in comparison. Throughout, Strachan does bring in many questions and observations appropriate to the period, including Ireland’s fight for independence, the role of women following the war, and politics. Rather than being expanded upon, however, these elements are merely touched upon and lack any real significance when placed into the story.
Elements of the novel seemed a little far-fetched and do not really work with the story, and the novel’s twists are both unexpected and unrealistic. Some of the included scenes are rather tedious, particularly with regard to the filling in of the census form. The dialogue is not as good as it could be. Some of the exchanges seem a little too modern in their structure and are not reminiscent of the period in which the novel is set. Grammatical mistakes can be found in several places throughout the novel which detracts from the writing style.
Sadly, Dead Man’s Embers does not come alive as The Earth in B Flat does. The writing is not as spellbinding and the story is not as well executed. The prose does not sparkle and seems rather mundane in many instances.