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Robert Allison’s the letter bearer was nominated for the 2015 Desmond Elliot prize for first novel written in English and published in the U.K. The Miniaturist, which I previously reviewed, was a good story that was Longlisted in 2015 for this Prize. The two novels are very different, although both are historical fiction. The use of language in Mr. Allison’s work is exquisite, and the plot evolves into a complex story. Between the two, his prose is superior. Mr. Allison is a writer to be followed. This novel is a must read.

The plot is initially simple. A soldier, a bearer of British soldiers’ letters home from the front in the early stage of the North African campaign during WWII, is severely injured and left to die by German soldiers. He is rescued by a band of deserters who have an Italian POW in-tow.

“Beastly misfortune. To be delivered into so reprobate a family. Brinkhurst: gentleman inquisitor, bon vivant, liar. Swann: bully, sadist, god to lesser creatures. Mawdsley: curator of analgesics, inductee to that venerable register of opiate-soused, absinthe-swilling quacks. Men of such poor fibre that they find in the openness of the desert only the need to seclude themselves. That they will kill him in the end he has no doubt. Either by calculation or mischance, whichever comes sooner.”

The author is a keen observer. Narrated by the severely injured courier named “the Rider”, the novel witnesses the desert landscape and the small frailties of men trapped between combatants in a war-zone, as the sedentary might. The Rider has PTSD and amnesia. It makes his distrusting companions uncomfortable. He tries to unfold his identity by reading the letters he carries. There is irony in this band of deserters. They an Italian POW in-tow. Humanity always needs to have someone to step on.

The desert, like Malta, is a land of antiquities and war fossils. Read this novel first for the prose, then for the plot.

“The Grant [a tank] continues on to an empty expanse, all flourishes of land ceded now to a featureless divide between earth and sky. If any vessels were to appear on the horizon they might describe in their travel the circumferential arc, a sight familiar to mariners, but still astonishing to land dwellers. Across the breadth of the vista, the air lifts and rolls in apparitional breakers, conjuring visions of mythic skylines, the canopies of secret waterholes. And for the rider, one illusion to supercede all others: that grand temple in which he had earlier trespassed, revealed to him now in a flourish of baking air. And why? The soul seeking redemption? The gateway to absolution?”