It's doubtless completely unfair but I have high expectations when poets turn their hand to fiction. I
unwittingly set the bar high on their ability to choose the right words and get them in the right order, assume beautiful cadences within a sentence and generally expect
to be moved by the writing above and beyond the norm. All uncalled for but to read Richard
Burns is thankfully to know you are in the hands of a very accomplished wordsmith.
As Mike has pointed out A Dance for the Moon first published in 1986 predates Pat Barker's Regeneration by about five years yet it still holds up remarkably well in 2008, timeless subject matter and writing style.The opening pages give voice to the strange living death that is the life of David Goodchild, the shell-shocked and traumatised poet, whilst perfectly expressing the utter embarrassment of his family coping with something they know so little about. David's mother seeks out Winfell, a private nursing home and the all-powerful resident psychiatrist using the latest analytical techniques and David is admitted for treatment.
Random events ambush David unexpectedly,
'Doors slammed the length of the train. A whistle blew. And David, hearing these sounds, shivered and turned pale.'
Moments of acute pathos and extreme gentleness ensue as his mother, escorting her son by train to the nursing home, is faced with the child she once knew and strives desperately to contain David's excruciating and debilitating anxiety in the only way she knows how,
'Mrs Goodchild turned
from the window, and was shocked by what she saw...she had to fumble
one of his hands free before she could hold it and reassure him.
'There, there,' she said, made vulnerable by the inadequacy of her own response, 'There, there. It's all right. There, there...gently, gently,' she murmured. 'Everything will be all right. You'll see. Everything'll be fine.'
Richard Burns displays impressive narrative skill slipping imperceptibly from third to first person to cleverly offer multiple points of view. Amongst those points of view, that of the station porter, a working class war veteran nurturing a growing resentment of Winfell and all it stands for,
'Jack Brough loathed Winfell. He loathed what it stood for. Officers got shell-shock; privates got drunk. Jack Brough had been a private.'
the social class divide temporarily bridged by the war yawns like a
gaping chasm once more and with it comes a renewed understanding of just how deeply embedded were the scars of this conflict.
Interspersed throughout the book, David's poetry and of course it is here that Richard Burns excels, not least with this idea,
'What is snow? Frozen water, but water that has frozen in a special way. Water that is frozen, yet it is not ice. A poem is like that; it is an idea that has turned into a crystal of delicate beauty; it is something that can transform a landscape or smother a man, yet something so fragile it can be moved in a single breath.'
There is too much in this book to notice and admire on a single read and I will certainly read it again but prepare to find yourself completely caught up in the whole as it works towards the eventual discovery of exactly what happened to David in the trenches and how that all plays out during his stay at Winfell.
There's so much I could comment on about this fine novel but I will give not another thing away other than to say expect the unexpected, the different, the unusual with this plot and by the denouement I was squinting from behind closed fingers because I couldn't bear what I thought was going to happen actually happening. I was all over the place, compassioned up to the eyeballs as Richard Burns carefully placed me on an emotional knife-edge with my sympathies rocking precariously on the brink, tipping who knows which way. I think I know where I stand but I do keep changing my mind a fraction now and again.
The final cruel irony is agonisingly and excruciatingly painful to witness and left me quietly stunned verging on deeply shocked, all making this one of those books that glint and glimmer in your mind long after the final page. Trust is breached every which way you turn, but my hasty early judgements on the characters seem to have given way to an altogether more measured consideration.
Richard Burns has cleverly shown me both sides and left me to make my own mind up.
If that's not breath-taking emotional engagement with a novel then I don't know what is and what more could a reader ask?
Now I'm completely in shreds but just don't miss A Dance For the Moon whatever you do.