Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The War Zone by Zoe Lambert

The War Zone by Zoe Lambert begins and ends with a flourish. The last story, in particular, I thought excellent. It is called 'We'll Meet Again'. Leon is in charge of the night shift in a Salford care home for Alzheimer's patients. As he goes through the night putting his charges to bed and then getting them up again with his co-workers he remembers his previous life as a mayor in Rwanda. The relationships are evoked with great subtlety.

Many of the stories feature Salford or Manchester, and many feature the lot of the refugee, and in particular the fight for acceptance in the UK. In' 33 Bullets', for instance, a titles inspired by a poem, an Iraqi professor waits to find out if his plea to remain in the UK is granted; it is a well-structured and tense piece. And in 'The Breakfast She Had' the premise is similar, this time looking at the plight of a mother and child from Sudan.

The setting of the familiar UK town is key. It brings the outside, violent and uncomfortable world closer: so the life of an old Lithuanian woman and her partisan colleagues are replayed to a Manchester office worker on a bus in 'These Words Are no More Than a Story'; the story of Margery the army wife is related to a Jehovah's Witness in 'Down Duchy Road'; and in 'From Kandahar' a soldier in the British army deals with coming home from Afghanistan. I liked this latter story very much. I was waiting for a comrade to die, but what happened was more shocking and revelatory than this. A later story, 'Her Blue Shadow', deals with the Afghan-British soldier relationship (mainly as a witness of traditional oppression), from the Afghan viewpoint.

The life of the soldier is a repeating theme, and in 'When the Truck Came' there is a striking evocation of the soldier's relationship with a gun amongst resistance fighters in the Congo. 'This is the most beautiful thing you will ever own' says the commander. 'You must love it. Worship it. Sleep with it. Eat with it.'

Several are set in earlier times: in ' The Spartacist League' I learnt a lot about someone I'd only just heard of before: Rosa Luxembourg, and I thought her betrayal was well done. The Spartacists were referred to again in 'Crystal Night'. In this story the physicist Lise Meitner was realistically evoked and the gradual unfolding of the scientific mystery of the unstable Uranium isotope was well done, although I found the explanations of the science a little confusing. Overall, though, I thought the interplay of drama and science worked well. The second world war came up again in 'Lebensborn'. This dealt with a topic I had not come across before - the collaboration of Norwegian women with German soldiers and what happened to them, and the main protagonist took the story neatly back again to modern Manchester: another strong and interesting story.

The very short story, 'My Sangar' was about surveillance taken to extreme, and I am not sure I have understood the subtleties of this story, nor of the story 'Turbofolk'. Although I found the writing thoroughly engaging, I was left with the nagging impression there was more to it than I realised. This last was set in former Yugoslavia, which was also the setting for the eponymous story 'The War Tour' combining an account of life in wartime Sarajevo with a writer's relationship with her travelling companion. Their story was concluded in the penultimate and one of the strongest stories in the collection: 'Our Backs to the Fort'. This, ironically, had perhaps the least to do with 'war' of any of the stories in the book, but was about a couple's faltering relationship. It told of the sort of quiet battle that most people will at one stage encounter. It was surprising and very well written.

Thanks to Comma Press for sending me a review copy of this book.


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