Thursday, 18 September 2014

Divided Loyalties by Dennis Hamley ... reviewed by Julia Jones

Dennis Hamley has set himself a challenging task -- republishing the first two volumes of his 'Ellen' Trilogy within a month of each other while still at work on the final part -- Unfinished Business.  Ellen's People came out in August and has been reviewed both here and on the ABBA site: Divided Loyalties appeared on schedule earlier this month (September).
   It's possibly not quite as ambitious a programme as Author's Electric Nick Green who bought out all three volumes of the Firebird Trilogy on a single day  but I would guess it still means that Dennis will have been foregoing some of the gentler pleasures of retirement. Will he be yearning for the uber-professionalism of Walker Books, the original publishers of Divided Loyalties?  Possibly, when engaged in fruitless negotiation about cover designs and managing all the nitty-gritty jobs that seem almost as demanding as writing. Certainly not when they then pulled out of publishing the concluding volume. I believe Nick Green suffered a similar let down in the final stages of a previous series.
   So here we have two authors, free to make their own choices about timing the release of their work. Neither chooses the book-a-year model of corporate publishing: one goes for broke on a single day, the other is publishing in monthly parts, making the readers wait but not asking them to wait too long. I used a six-month time scale for my 'Strong Winds' trilogy, though that was as much to suit my own circumstances as to attract / retain an audience. And still, three years on, the first volume outsells the other two by a margin that seems to replicate the worst features of primogeniture. Will Nick and Dennis find the same or will their alternative timetables even things up?
   It seemed to me that the second volume was the hardest to write -- how quickly could I move on, how much sign-posting and reiteration would be necessary? How to conclude without actually completing? I was correspondingly fascinated to see how Dennis Hamley could ensure that Divided Loyalties was not eclipsed by its successful older sister? By writing a completely different book -- both structurally and thematically. Divided Loyalties is independent from chapter one.
   When I reviewed Ellen's People  I mentioned that I was looking forward to following Ellen in her post-war future as she and her German husband, Matthias, attempted to settle back into their possibly depressed 1920s village. I think I'd expected some sort of fictional Akenfield. Not a bit of it! Hamley leaps the reader forward more than a decade and Divided Loyalties opens in 1935 with Ellen and Matthias's stroppy oldest son, Walter, blasting away at clay pigeon targets and wishing they were his equable, understanding father.
   Ellen's primary role in this novel is as the loved and loving mother: most of the fictional interest lies with the next generation. Walter is troubled, angry, confused and it's a strength of Hamley's characterization that he doesn't offer the easy reconciliation that this reader, at least, was longing for. There is also Helmut, the Nazi cousin, Paul and Anna the younger and more conventionally talented children. They've had an easier upbringing as Matthias and Ellen have prospered -- though Matthias will discover that even twenty years' blameless residence may not be enough to spare him when England and Germany go to war again.
   In my review of Ellen's People I  mentioned that it didn't tell me anything much about WW1 that I didn't already know (I hope I made it clear that this was an observation not a criticism -- and might, anyway, only be personal). Divided Loyalties, the WW2 novel, has taken me onto less familiar ground -- such as the forced evacuation of internees to Canada. I enjoyed being RAF ground crew, then a rear-gunner with Walter and a tank commander in the Russian campaign with Helmut. This is a novel with strong male characters and Hamley portrays their lives on active service with authority.
   Plot-wise it's a pleasure to have known Ellen in her younger days and there are some back references to Ellen's People but it's certainly not essential.  In fact I can imagine young male readers going straight for Divided Loyalties with never a glance behind them. I wonder what the third volume will hold -- I'm certainly not going to attempt any predictions!

Divided Loyalties by Dennis Hamley was first published by Walkter Books in 2008 and has now been reissued by the Blank Page Press