No Man’s Land – Simon Tolkien

nomanslandI was excited to be given a chance to review this Advance Reader Copy. I’m fascinated by WWI, especially first-hand accounts of trench warfare. A novel written by JRR Tolkien’s grandson about his experiences at the Somme in WWI, what more could you ask for?

A lot, apparently.

My feelings about this book formed a slightly imperfect parabola: disappointment in a lackluster beginning, then amazing apex, then slowly dwindling back down into jejune story. I think Tolkien is riding his grandfather’s coattails a wee bit. I’ve discovered from previous books that often the descendants of famous authors try to distance themselves from their predecessor’s success in order to stand on their own two feet, but that was not the case here.

The first 47% on my Kindle read like a poor man’s Jeffrey Archer.

A rushed, “tell” not “show” sentimental story of a young boy with a heart of gold just aching to do the right thing. The writing was lacking. There were so many instances where I read “he could feel”, “he could see,” “he could hear,” that I was taken aback. This usage of present perfect – if that’s the tense it is – takes the reader a step away from the events at hand. Bottom line, it’s just poor writing. The first half of the book was overly sentimental with dialog that was stilted and pedantic. The plot was interesting enough to keep me going, but the amateurish writing overrode any enjoyment of the story. About a third of the way into the book, I almost bailed. The story was so full of tired tropes and one-dimensional stereotypes that I wasn’t sure I could keep going. But I’m really glad I did.

At the halfway mark, the reader finally reaches the Somme, the bludgeoning horror of WWI, and the story takes off. The shocking atrocities and grueling fatigue, the appalling brutality of trench warfare, these were things I had read about before but never with such depth. I loved this part of the book, and it was worth the slog to get to this point. I tore through the middle, my eyes blazing across the sentences. The account of the war had the impact I wanted. It was emotional reading without becoming saccharine, and I was captivated. I’m wondering if Tolkien’s real desire was to write this middle section, but to get there he had to write the insipid initial story line.

The necessary last third of the book was essentially an epilogue of what happens to the remaining characters, and I was invested enough now to want to know what happened in the end, even though I knew that everything would be tidied, the wrongs would be righted, that good would prevail. (And sometimes, it’s best if everything doesn’t work out perfectly. Just a thought, S. Tolkien. It makes the story more real.)

So, would I recommend this? Maybe. I would most certainly recommend a heavy-handed editor. The middle of the book about WWI is amazing reading, so if you’re willing to endure the beginning to get there, then I encourage it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Simon Tolkien for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.


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