A Close Run Thing by Allan Mallinson

When I spotted a lovely painting-like cover of this book on NetGalley, I thought "Stunning. They don't make them like that anymore...". I was correct; this edition seems to be released ten years ago and the book itself - twenty, speaking of being late to the party!

The blurb reads:

"Waterloo 1815. The war against Napoleon Bonaparte is raging to its bloody end at Waterloo.

A young officer - Cornet Matthew Hervey - going about his duty suddenly finds himself at the crux of events. 

The decisions he has to make - both military and romantic - will change the course of his life, and possible have far reaching political consequences..."

There are books about soldiers from the time of the Napoleonic wars - infantry and navy, but the cavalry has been given a wide berth. Until now.

From the very beginning, attention to details of soldiers' life is striking. It shows in the small details, spoken in a manner long forgotten:

"His eyes were set front, and filling the limited arc of their fixed gaze were two symbols which, while if not to his mind entirely contradictory, in their juxtaposition seemed somehow incongruous. For on the wall behind the desk was a large wooden cross with a painted figure of the crucified Christ. Next to it - perhaps even leaning against it - was the regimental guidon, a piece of red silk on a beechwood stave, its richly embroidered battle honours still resplendent despite the staining and fading."

The story is very rich in characters - names well-known from the history: Wellington, Hussey Vivian, Cavendish - to mention a few, but also plenty of fictional characters, which added to the hustle and bustle of the life of a cavalry officer and a gentleman. 

The dialogue sometimes feels very slow. Mallinson does a fantastic job in portraying different accents or manners of speaking, but the actual conversations often may lack flair and swiftness:

 

- 'Quartermaster Hill has died of an ague,' he began.
- 'Oh,' said Hervey, 'I am right sorry - a good man and an honest quartermaster.'
- 'Ay, t'canteen raised a fair sum for 'his widow. There's a new vetinry an' all.'

As enjoyable as it was going through the details of the battle of Waterloo, a harshness of 19th century-life, or Hervey's inability to understand popular (during his time) literary references, I have two issues with this book.

Firstly - the main character; he's polite, righteous, honourable, always follows his conscience - almost too polite, too noble, not a stain on his character. As an embodiment of cavalry officer's ideal, there's no one better, but from a perspective of the entire story, he feels a bit two-dimensional.

Secondly - the plot; I'm used to having an overarching theme of a novel. For example, in Cornwell's books, Sharpe usually has a mission and a villain to deal with. The war is just a backdrop. In this novel, the plot is meandering. For about 80% of the book, I was trying to find the arc, and every time it eluded me.

Here's how it went (spoiler-free):

  1. Hervey's given a [redacted] by the [redacted] to deliver safely to [redacted] - oh, that's a cool mission! Nope, they're [redacted]
  2. Napoleon surrenders, Hervey goes home, reconnects with a woman from his past - oh, please don't be a Jane Austen-style romance! It is not.
  3. Troops are sent to [redacted], Hervey is getting into an altercation with [redacted] due to [redacted] - oh, preparation for 1816 events? Awesome! Nope, wrong again, Waterloo happens.
  4. Waterloo happens. 

Because of this, Hervey comes across as a bit of a flag in the wind in the story. His actions are mostly reactive and drive the plot very little. Despite that, the ends are tied logically, and the story is quite satisfying once you get into it. 

My favourite part, however, was during a family dinner, where awkwardness is brought to the table. Instead of suffering along with the characters, the point of view switches to Hervey's sister, and her diary entry. I will leave it for you to discover.

This love letter to an idea of a British cavalry officer, written by a cavalry officer of remarkable service history, is a glimpse into two pasts - the 1815 era of history-changing events, and a nostalgic return to a time where life, and books, had a slower pace.

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A Close Run Thing on Goodreads

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