Usually I am allergic to novels like this, in which the story is told in the present tense. The technique shouts ‘pretentious literary effect’ at me and soon becomes wearing. If the purpose is to maintain immediacy, it doesn’t work because story tension depends on being balanced with the episodes of non-tension. If the purpose is to differentiate between the ‘now’ of the story and the ‘then’ of flashbacks told in the past tense (as happens here), that’s just patronising. What on earth is it for?
Despite this annoying tic, Lachlan’s War is an affecting novel dealing with the devastating impact of a complex, sophisticated outside world on a traditional rural community. Lachlan McCready, GP in a remote West Highland village during World War II, takes in Frank, a young withdrawn evacuee who turns out to be a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Lachlan sends Frank to the village school, where the teacher, Gail, an English Land Girl, takes him under her wing. Between them they try to break Frank’s silence and reveal his past, a process which also reveals much about Lachlan, Gail and another Land Girl, Lucy, whose careless amorality invites tragedy.
The author has created characters we care about and placed them in a setting we can only see in our mind’s eye but almost, touch hear and smell too. The village setting is almost palpably bleak and a bombing in Glasgow, in which one of the characters is caught, is heart-stopping. But, if you’re thinking the novel is unremittingly grim, read on – there is room for hope too.