No Man’s Land
Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land is the story of Adam Raine, a poor London boy who moves first to Scarsdale, a northern coal-mining town, and then out to the trenches of the First World War. Tolkien has clearly done his research, and he is keen to communicate that research to his readers. Adam sees the Kaiser, watches his unionist father lead and manage strikes, and fights in the trenches, all described in great detail. Unfortunately that detail is this book’s downfall. Actions are followed almost immediately by an explanation of the character’s motivation. As a result, I found the characters dull and lifeless. Tolkien used to be a barrister, and the book reminded me of a court document, laying out every fact clearly in order to draw the reader to one inevitable conclusion. But novels are not meant to be statements of claim. As the novel progressed, I felt Tolkien had no faith in my ability to intuit meaning, and reading became a chore rather than a voyage of discovery.
No Man’s Land reminded me of school history books, where the everyday lives of named, fictionalized characters of the relevant period are described to provide interest and context. It will probably appeal most to readers who are looking for a fictionalised account of the period between 1900 and 1918 to supplement their knowledge, rather than to those who are looking for literary dexterity or a good read.