In our final Remembrance feature, novelist Rebecca Mascull explains how an English lesson at school ignited her interest in war and literature…
In my three published novels, I’ve written about war in every one: the Boer War in The Visitors, the Seven Years War in Song of the Sea Maid and the Great War in my new book The Wild Air. I’m wondering why this is, what it is about war that keeps drawing me back. Sure, it has natural conflict, perfect for a novelist. It can inject pure drama into narrative, in which the costs are high and what is at stake is not only the lives of the characters, but in the case of the Great War for example, a feeling in this country particularly that all their futures are also hanging in the balance. Beyond that, it’s about my fascination with the condition of war. As a fourteen-year-old English student, sitting in my classroom listening to ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits, played by a particularly sensitive English teacher as we covered the great war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – I actually cried in that classroom, in front of my friends, and I didn’t care about embarrassing myself. I was so moved, so haunted by the futility of it all. I couldn’t bear the fact that Owen didn’t make it through the war.
Before The Visitors was published, I wrote a novel about the Holocaust (and I still hope it sees the light of day, one day). The seeds for that story went back to another seminal experience aged 15, when I saw a TV movie called Escape from Sobibor, about a real-life escape from a Nazi death camp. The worst part of the story for me was finding out what happened next, in those subtitles they sometimes put at the end of films. One of the main characters (played by lovely Alan Arkin) had been through hell in the camp and successfully managed to escape and run into the woods . The subtitles told me that this character in real life went back to his Polish village where he’d lived all his life, and just after the war ended was murdered by anti-semitic Poles in his own village. I was horrified. To have gone through all that, to have beaten the ultimate enemy – the Nazis – and survived to tell the tale, yet only months later, to have been killed by his own countrymen. It taught me a harsh and valuable lesson: that the end of war never means the end of war, that the aftermath is long-reaching and in some ways, for some countries and some individuals, it never ends. There are few aspects of the human experience that are so all-consuming, so dramatic and complex, so pitiful and heroic, as war. I can’t see myself tiring of writing about it any time soon.
The Wild Air is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6 April 2017