A review of The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer

This is a lovely, spare but beautifully written book full of contrast. It is a very feminine, reflective, and quiet book about a man whose life was masculine, noisy, and full of action. It takes a single point of history which is so well written about and so heavily acted out that it has become more folklore than story, and turned it into an inventive, original story of everyman–a parable for the modern soul.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers
Delia Falconer
Picador Australia
ISBN: 0330421794, July 2005, Hardback, 156 pages, A$28.

“Tell the boy: who knows if we make history or are made, some impressionable pulp within us held for one brief lifetime by the small simplicities.“ (106) It is 20 years after the Battle of Little Bighorn, and captain Frederick Benteen is responding, mostly inside his head, to a letter he’s received from an eighteen year old boy who wants to argue his case “against the malicious ghost of Custer and those who would claim him as a hero.” (21) In Falconer’s second novel, time and space has been condensed to a point. The present is a few hours one morning, and the setting is Benteen’s home and backyard. The voice is all inside Benteen, as he moves through his morning, opening letters, composing his reply, walking around the kitchen garden and into the ice house. The landscape of the present tense is externally silent and without any forward motion. But from the myopic centre of Benteen’s recollections, the novel expands outwards to the wide open “epic” plains of Montana where that famous battle took place, and further, to the notion of what it means to be alive, to have experienced friendship, love, death, and to be a part of a chequered history; to survive when other, more famous characters didn’t.

Like Leopold Bloom, Benteen is the perfect anti-hero. His memories aren’t of chivalry, or great acts of heroism. He scarcely pauses on his own act of courage, or the “grand story” of his history. Instead he reflects on the beauty of his wife, on the lighthearted moments of humour in the quiet between the battle, on the epiphanies of his friends, his son’s first words, or the colour and texture of the landscape he visits in his mind:

In Montana they cut through the surface of the river to let the horses drink. Weird green clouds pressed down on the mountains; the pines a royal blue, like the ruched insides of glaciers, in the clearer air beneath. The only way to find the sullen ice-sreams sometimes was to sight the yellowed marsh grass at their edges.(55)

The characterisations are as compact and deft as Benteen’s other thoughts. A few sentences of dialogue, or a light description of manner, a dream recalled, a minor tick or way of holding the mouth, are so neatly and powerfully conveyed, that they immediately reveal an intimacy which goes beyond heavy and detailed description. The shallow vanity of Libby Custer for example, are conveyed in 2 sentences:

Walking through the camp, scissors in her hand to trim the General’s hair, humming to herself, she watched to see if they were watching. He believed she had no private thoughts, only, like Custer, a kind of extra instinct for standing where the light would catch her best. (63)

Although the action is minimised, Falconer takes the reader in instantly, providing a ringside seat to Benteen’s thoughts. There is no need for overt description. The writing is as tight and rich as poetry, with every line pared to the essence of what it is trying to convey. The fragments of Benteen’s thoughts are clear enough as he wanders over the battlefield, moving quickly between the present with photographs, vegetable garden, and deterioriating heath, and the past with its ribald humour in the toilets, the vanity and camaraderie in the mess tent, or the late night drinking sessions in between the fighting. The portraits build up slowly as the novel gathers pace, with each memory building on the previous ones until the meaning of the novel becomes clear. Life is lived in those everyday moments which pass so quickly they are almost lost. Not in the grand history we read about, but instead: “the seams and spaces in between.” (117) That’s what The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is all about. The seams and spaces.

This is a lovely, spare but beautifully written book full of contrast. It is a very feminine, reflective, and quiet book about a man whose life was masculine, noisy, and full of action. It takes a single point of history which is so well written about and so heavily acted out that it has become more folklore than story, and turned it into an inventive, original story of everyman–a parable for the modern soul. Reading The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is relatively quick, but as it isn’t a plot driven story, the meaning is derived from the delicate structure of the sentences rather than revelation. This is a book “small simplicities” which reveal great truths.

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