Laird Hunt – Neverhome

lairdhunt-neverhomeShe calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. Neverhome tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause.

Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

In gorgeous prose, Hunt’s rebellious young heroine fights her way through history, and back home to her husband, and finally into our hearts.

Women disguising themselves as men to be able to do things or go places denied them by societal conventions due to their sex is an age-old phenomenon, in life and in literature. From Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Viola, and Imogen, to Tolkien’s Eowyn, Martin’s Arya, and Pierce’s Alanna, we can find many different versions of and motives for the phenomenon. But one of the most common motives seems to have been so that our main character can take up arms, be it as a vocation as Alanna, to save a beloved family member as Mulan does, or to escape from her pursuers unseen as Arya does. Those are all fictional examples, but there are many historical ones too: Joan of Arc and Hannah Snell come too mind, but as Kameron Hurley points out there are many more. In Neverhome Hunt focuses on just such a woman who takes up arms to keep her husband from going to war, because she wants to see places, because she is just more suited to it, and because she believed in the cause.  

Ash is all of the above, but with the added motivation of a traumatic event in her past which is slowly revealed through the narrative. The mystery of why Ash left for the war and Bartholomew stayed was long unsolved, as was her mother’s fate. The reason for her mum’s fate was stunning, especially once we find out the identity of their erstwhile neighbours. Yet this slow reveal is also the novel’s biggest weakness. It only comes towards the end of the novel and our way there is rather meandering and somewhat slow. Despite this slow pace, the narrative never fails to compel and this is mostly due to Ash’s voice and the unusual narrative structure. Ash tells her story to the reader in a no-nonsense way; she’s not exactly ignorant, but she comes across as an honest and hard-working farmer, who hasn’t gone much beyond basic schooling. This is echoed in the structure of the novel. It’s divided in a large number of 2-4 page chapters, which somewhat alleviates the slow feel of the book.

Strangely enough, Ash’s being female is far less of a driving point for the narrative than you’d expect. Is certainly plays its part in how the story plays out, especially in the latter part of the book, but it serves more to emphasise the alienating nature of war and Ash’s trauma than to be a “woman warrior caught and tried”-story. I’d argue that Ash’s story shows the cost of war on its combatants – not  just in her own experiences, but also in that of her fellow combatants – and that this was the true heart of the narrative. As one of her fellow (female) soldier puts it: “I made it back, sure enough, but never felt I’d made it home.” And that resonates strongly with Ash’s narrative; from the moment we meet her until the end of the book Ash is striving to get back, home to her farm, to Bartholomew, and to the person she was before she left. But that is a place and person that is gone forever and it’s this fact that she discovers over the course of the book.

Neverhome wasn’t a perfect read, but it was a compelling one. It’s historical fiction, yet I don’t think there were any true historical persons included in the main cast. The setting in the Civil War was interesting, especially since I don’t know that much about that war beyond the basics. Neverhome isn’t a cheery tale, in fact the ending of the book is just painfully tragic. Ash’s tale ends in tears and in a confession that I didn’t see coming, even if the signs are there to find throughout the book. If you like your fiction towards the more literary end of the spectrum, Neverhome will definitely be one for you.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.