Monday, 12 November 2012

Torn, by David Massey

Torn is a book that I am finding quite hard to quantify. It turned out to be much better than I had thought it was going to be. This was a very pleasant surprise, especially when several books I’ve read lately have started off really well and then lost momentum toward the end.

The story follows Private Elinor Nielson on her first tour in Afghanistan. She’s nineteen years old, has just qualified as a medic, and has been sent to an FOB - Forward Operating Base - in the Helmand Province. Not only does her first patrol go badly, but her immediate officer in charge, Heidi, quickly takes a dislike to her for no real, discernible reason.

I found the first couple of chapters difficult because I couldn't help questioning the authenticity both of Ellie’s behaviour and of the behaviour of others around her. Would a newly minted soldier on her first patrol really take the sort of actions that Ellie does? Would her superiors really put her in the position where she felt the need to behave in this manner? And would Heidi really talk to her captain the way she does? I had to wonder what research or experience the author, David Massey, had. Before picking up the book, I assumed that in order for him to write realistically about modern warfare he must have served in Afghanistan himself, but quickly found myself questioning this assumption.

Yet Torn develops in the most intriguing of ways. Who is the little girl in the blue dress Ellie keeps seeing? I she a displaced, lost child? A ghost? Or perhaps even an angel? Rather than just trying to represent the daily grind of life on the front, Massey develops this subtle and revealing plotline which takes the reader closer to the heart of the Afghan war and builds in a mystery that forced me to keep turning the pages. Ellie and her team are tasked with identifying a group of fighter children who call themselves the Young Martyrs - where they come from and why are they here? Aroush, the girl in the blue dress, is somehow tied up with them, as is a western journalist, and what looks set to be quite a conspiracy, likely to turn many heads and pose many ethical questions back home in Britain.

Through the medium of this story, and the search for the truth of what happened to the Young Martyrs and their village, Massey introduces a number of different aspects, complications and horrors of war, particularly the manner in which all the different factions are pitted against one another, with everyday civilians stuck in the middle, unable to escape and unable to determine their own destinies. There are scenes of death and warfare, but he treats them respectfully, drawing the reader in to feel the adrenaline of the moment and the sorrow of the loss without overdoing it or sensationalising it. It is a subtle and effective form of writing well refined for the teenage age-group. A love story is there too, but it is a quiet, tantalising love story that does not overshadow the main focus of the book, instead just adding that little extra contrast, helping to keep the reader in tune with the other events.

Overall this is a bittersweet book, with a dramatic ending. Ellie and her team cannot undo what happened to the Young Martyrs, but they can help to make amends. This, of course, is a truth of war. It’s not pretty, but if you can create hope, then perhaps there can be light at the end of the tunnel. Massey does not and cannot solve the greater problem, especially as we continue to have people out there fighting as I write, but he leaves us feeling hopeful that these are people trying to do the right thing and see their way through terrible circumstances.

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