Review of the reads – September 2023
Yusef Sayed’s review of the reads.
Three Sides Out, One Way Home
By Dominique Allen
Published by the author, price £14.99. Available from the Lincolnshire Life Shop
Based in part on the experiences of an RAF veteran known personally to the author, this light-hearted novel is set against the backdrop of the Malayan Emergency. It follows three different personalities as their paths cross amid the ongoing unrest: John, a driver and engineer; ‘Padre’ who has been appointed chaplain at a local mission house; and ‘Porter’, a thief who has talked his way onto the British camp to get out of trouble.
Also the setting for earlier comic works including Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy and Leslie Thomas’ The Virgin Soldiers, readers unfamiliar with the historical details will be left to research beyond the book to learn the timeline and significant events of that period; the tactics and the death toll – both on the part of the Commonwealth forces and communists of the MNLA. Allen’s is a novel of local antics and developing friendships in a foreign country, firmly focused on a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.
Much of the action shifts between the army base and town as the newcomers acclimatise themselves to the busy traders, the surrounding terrain and the threats from conspiring ‘CT’ guerillas. Characters must get to know the ‘channels’ and ‘rituals’, while the simmering politics of the place is kept to hushed café conversations.
Padre’s gentle persuasion, the blunt practicality of John and the quick-thinking, risk-taking of Porter all play their part in preventing loss of life as the action unfolds. Between supply deliveries, repairs and negotiations that keep the day-to-day operations moving, there are action set pieces – from a precarious tower clock repair in the town to an attempted attack on a nearby plantation that are effectively structured. Allen also shifts the style to give us an impressionistic first-person perspective when John is involved in a dramatic fall.
Through these characters, Allen intends not to reckon with a deeply complex and lengthy political crisis but to focus on the spirit of individuals and convey camaraderie and brotherhood – above all paying tribute to the man who inspired the writing.
King John’s Right Hand Lady
By Sharon Bennett Connolly
Published by Pen & Sword History, price £25
My curiosity about Nicholaa de la Haye was inspired more than a decade ago, when reviewing a book about the relatively little known Battle of Lincoln in 1217 within these pages. A loyal supporter of King John around the time of Magna Carta, de la Haye was castellan of Lincoln Castle, and shortly before the king’s death was appointed sherriff of Lincolnshire – the first woman to be given such a role. More remarkable still, de la Haye ensured that Lincoln Castle held out against the odds during the attempt to secure the crown for Prince Louis – a crisis which almost saw England fall to French forces supported by rebellious barons, after Henry III’s ascendancy.
History enthusiast and writer Sharon Bennett Connolly’s new book promises to tell the story of Nicholaa de la Haye, but frustratingly leads the reader off on endless tangents. The background detail is all admirably compiled, and the author has clearly researched the period in depth, tracing de la Haye’s and her spouses’ families back through the generations, as well as the lives of kings and other key players. It all builds context. However, there is simply too little about the subject herself. What’s more, a lack of substantial historical records means that when attention is briefly turned to Nicholaa, the writing is qualified with probablys and may haves.
While the shorthand history of Nicholaa de la Haye has inspired a plaque at the castle and the naming of a building at the University of Lincoln, this book does not give us any especial insight into the woman and her life. There are even needless repetitions, such as when we are reminded within a short space that Nichola endured a ‘three-month siege’ in 1217, that suggest the book was written as isolated chapters – that might be repurposed in other writing – rather than as a whole, absorbing narrative.
With the historical information available here, it would be as well to write a compelling historical fiction inspired by Nicholaa’s life – at least that might put her truly in focus, bringing her out of the shadow of King John and the Magna Carta story.