This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Christina Jones has written over 20 novels, and regularly contributes short stories and articles to magazines. Her latest novel, An Enormously English Monsoon Wedding, was out earlier this year. Here she tells Novelicious why Then A Soldier was so inspirational for her and why she still re-reads it at least twice a year.
I first read this book when I was 10. It certainly wasn’t a children’s book – or even a girly book – but it was just one of hundreds on my reading-mad parents’ bookshelves and it had a bright orange cover and I liked it.
It’s no longer orange, being cloth-bound and having faded to a dirty beige over the years, but I still have it and I still re-read it twice a year at least. It’s my ultimate comfort read.
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When I was 10 I’d read all the Enid Blytons etc etc, and loved them but this was the first book I’d ever read where the author had three stories running at the same time: three totally different main characters, separate at the start, with three-dimensional lives and families and jobs and backgrounds – and then brought together by the start of World War II.
I was enchanted as I got to know all three young men from London: upper-class graduate and would-be journalist Robert; working-class shop-assistant and about-to-get-engaged Les; and acclaimed, well-travelled, Jewish swing-band pianist, Jackie.
Fate and conscription throws them together, and the descriptions of their joint horror at being torn from their families and secure lifestyles into the harsh realities of army training camps – mostly cold, wet, crowded and uncomfortable – and their growing friendship as they find themselves frightened, homesick, at odds with the system, most of the other conscripts and definitely the officers who were trying to make them into soldiers, are step-off-the-page vivid.
I was *there*. I knew nothing of the war or army camps – but I could feel their initial fear, their relief at having met one another and the growing camaraderie between them despite their very obvious differences.
Then A Soldier is not without humour. It’s a very warm book. Some of the incidents during Robert, Les and Jackie’s training and subsequent postings are laugh-out-loud funny. And probably true. There are also fabulous vignettes of some of the officers, too – and Geoffrey Cotterell is brilliant at spare description and one-liners.
The book spans the whole of the war and follows Robert, Les and Jackie through their training, through their initial postings, through separations and promotions and their clever manoeuvres to get themselves posted back together again, always in England, and not, definitely not, posted abroad.
I loved the parts where they went home on leave, too. Back to their families as changed men. The war had changed everyone and there is one particularly clever plot device when Les has been made a sergeant and is now in charge of the others, and Robert, back home for a weekend with his rich family, discovers, in a very funny scene, that Les’s mum is now his own mother’s char-lady.
There are fleeting romances – although not for Les who stays true to fiancée Georgie throughout – and some genuinely heart-rending scenes of blitz-torn London.
But, it all ends happily. All three are alive and well at the end of the war and ready to return to their previous lives and the knowledge that their friendship will last forever.
A fabulous book that has stayed with me over the decades and has in no small part coloured the way I write my own novels.