Our deepest scars are the ones that do not show. Bad luck dogs Adam Raine even as his impoverished childhood is brought to a grinding halt in the slums of Islington by tragic circumstances. He goes north to Scarsdale, a desperate coalmining town where his father makes a living as a coal union worker. Not too long after, the tension simmering between the mine-owner, Sir John Scarsdale, and the miners explodes with unforeseen results.
Afterwards, Adam goes on to meet beautiful Miriam, the Rector’s daughter, and ends up in Scarsdale Hall, a world far removed from the poverty and grind of his earlier circumstances. Life in this den of inequity looks good but he is put in his place time and again by Brice, Sir John’s son, who feels he must punish in all ways possible what he sees as a social climber.
Just as he hears the bugle of love coming together with an Oxford education, just when things seem to be finally going his way, the Great War explodes and with it his life begins to fray along the edges. ‘The epidemic wouldn’t go away; if anything it seemed to be getting worse. People wore gauze muslin masks across their noses and mouths. And children skipping in the playgrounds sang:
‘I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window
‘Everywhere the black horses trotted through deserted streets pulling hearses to the burial ground. The buses and the trains and the cinemas all stank of cheap disinfectant.
‘At night the gas-lit streets crowded with impoverished demobbed soldiers in ragged khaki. They were there to conceal the horror of missing noses and mouths and jaws that had turned the men into living gargoyles from whom their wives and children had fled in terror when they came back from the war.’
A war that has turned things upside down—remorselessly, without an iota of regret.
In trying times like these, Brice struggles to keep afloat, even though it is quite some effort on his part to keep his nose above the engulfing waters that threaten to drown the estate and the coal mines. As his grandfather writes a cheque to help him tide over the crisis, the words from the old geezer ring in his ears: ‘You’ve got some of my blood in your veins so maybe you can do better. But if you can’t, don’t come running back to me! It’s time for you to stand on your own two feet, young man, and show us what you are made of!’
And if truth be told, Brice does try to stand. But like a modern-day Sisyphus, he climbs the hill pushing the proverbial boulder to the top but no sooner does he get there, the weight of debt pulls him right under.
Tolkien dips into the World War I experience of his illustrious grandfather J R R Tolkien, who had a first-hand exposure to the injustice, poverty and its many ills to spin a tale worthy of his patriarchs. A crisp page-turner that takes you gently by the hand into a world where the gloves are off and you are in for a ride to a world stripped of all the genteel veneer of goodness. A gripping read that comes highly recommended.