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The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison

The Letter Bearer

by Robert Allison

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For as long as there have been wars, soldiers have suffered serious memory issues. These are usually characterized by repeatedly reliving traumatic events accompanied by a cluster of attendant symptoms known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Allison explores the relationship between the brutality of war and memory in THE LETTER BEARER by having his protagonist suffer profound amnesia, a condition that seems considerably more rare than PTSD. With his characters, setting and plot, Allison admirably evokes the important relevant issues, including loss of and efforts to recover identity, and a sense of isolation and displacement that accompanies memory loss.

A man, known only as “the rider,” is rescued by a group of British Army deserters following his motorcycle accident in the North African desert during the early stages of World War II. His insignias are missing, as is his memory. He believes that he might be a dispatch rider since he carried a postbag filled with letters written by soldiers from a British tank regiment. To him, these letters represent a link to the more benevolent world he left behind. He sees himself as one of the letter writers, but the reader may well be justified in doubting that.

There are no heroes in this band of deserters. Instead, Allison gives us a group of desperate men without a leader, with only vague goals and little honor. Not unlike “the rider” they also have lost their identities, those that come with military rank and hierarchy, replacing them with casual brutality and pragmatism. With the exception of “the rider,” Allison fails to develop much nuance or depth in these characters. Each can be described with simple descriptors: Brinkhurst, competent administrator; Lance Corporal Swann, the consummate soldier; Mawdsley, the medic; Coates, the Canadian; and Lucchi, the compassionate Italian POW.

The narrative shifts between simply recounting a series of events that the group faces while wandering in the desert and “the rider’s” musings about his supposed past that the letters may represent, and his slowly returning recollection of the events that occurred in his tank and lead to his motorcycle accident. The novel’s strength comes from the detail that Allison provides primarily about the letters and their authors, but also the fascinating, but bleak, desert environment. These serve as wonderful counterpoints to emphasize the senselessness and brutality of the war. Unfortunately, the mood Allison succeeds in creating occasionally is broken by excessively lyrical prose, and the questionable ability of this small group of men to lug around all of things required to move the plot forward—water, food, cooking implements, multiple weapons, ammunition, tents, a seemingly endless supply of fuel for the recovered tank, etc. This is especially jarring when one considers that much of the journey is on foot over mountains and “the rider” is recovering from an accident that almost took his life. Was it really necessary to have Lucchi lug those chickens all over the desert? ( )
  ozzer | Apr 22, 2016 |
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"The Rider has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be lying dying in the brutal heat of the North African desert. Rescued by a band of deserters, the Rider begins to piece together his identity, based on shards of recollection and the letters in his mailbag. The Letter Bearer is unlike any other novel of World War Two. In the midst of profound trauma, terrible warfare, and the nameless experience of desertion, this gripping story asks us to consider how men build hope when they have nothing left not even a name. When first published last year in London, Robert Allison's debut novel was met with wide praise and was nominated for the Desmond Elliott Prize, described by one of its judges as "'An excellent and elegant novel written with patience and authority" Readers of Michael Ondaatje and Paul Bowles will find the landscape familiar, but the no reader will ever forget the haunting and haunted story of this remarkable victim. "--… (more)

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