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Posted on 21 May 2019 in Fiction | 1 comment

NIGEL FEATHERSTONE Bodies of Men. Reviewed by Kim Kelly

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Nigel Featherstone’s new novel explores what it means to be a man.

This latest work of fiction from Australian writer Nigel Featherstone is in many ways a timeless novel of love between men in wartime. But while its elegant structure turns on revelations of truth and cleverly employs the tropes of traditional romance, every corner of this story is stained by a brutal and typically Australian masculinity.

We meet the lovers, William Marsh and James Kelly, during World War II in the midst of a skirmish with the Italian enemy almost immediately after disembarking in Alexandria in 1941. William loses his nerve at the moment of kill-or-be-killed, and James saves his life, ‘rifle at the ready’. A look of recognition passes between the men before they are separated by different duties, establishing from the first an irresistible intrigue – one that accelerates when James, in the next scene, absconds on a regimental motorbike.

Throughout, the narrative is wound around two central questions: When will James and William meet again? And what is a real man? The former scaffolds the plot; the latter takes us on a journey into the heart of each character, and into a relationship that began long before war brings them together again.

William and James were, in every sweetest sense, childhood sweethearts. As young boys, a handful of experiences – climbing a tree, seeing a movie, sharing a trip to the Blue Mountains – are enough to establish the love of a lifetime. This young love is heart-melting, but Featherstone carefully underscores it with the special danger boys face in expressing attraction and intimacy. The ‘dull, warm ache’ of wanting to see each other again is a secret both delicious and dreadful. As young William reflects, fearfully:

‘I’d love to be given a bouquet of pine needles,’ James had said during the week. ‘Look at the water swirling like ribbons around the rocks.’ Those were not the sayings of someone who would become a man.

William’s fears are those of a stitched-up ‘bit of a toff’, a fellow of ‘pedigree’, whose father’s strict code of manliness clouds all joy with an ever-present threat of humiliation. In the vein of all great star-crossed lovers, James is almost his opposite: a working-class kid, whose unconventional background allows him far greater freedoms. William is a young gentleman interrupting his degree in medicine with a stint of manhood-proving war experience, the son of a North Shore politician and Gallipoli veteran; James is the son of a single mother and political activist shopkeeper at Millers Point, above the wharves on the rough and tumble south side of the Harbour Bridge. Upon joining the army, James enlists as an ordinary private and William a non-commissioned officer on his way to promotion to lieutenant.

The pressure William is under to present himself as a proper man is relentless from childhood:

He had attended Boys Brigade since his seventh birthday, becoming a lance corporal at thirteen, just like his brothers…

And there is biblical pressure, too, his father quoting Philippians 4:8:

 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Of course, with poignant irony, William’s love for James is all these things, but William, in those younger years, can only believe himself to be ‘poison’.

James’s witness of Australian male brutality is of a more overt, proletarian kind when his pacifist, socialist father is beaten for being ‘unpatriotic’ in 1934, at the height of Sydney’s Depression-inspired rage of the streets – a persecution that leads his father to suicide. But the heartbeat of James’s life is the quiet hardworking heroism of his mother, who tells him: ‘Just be yourself, darling. Simple, honest, unpretentious.’

Perhaps because of the simple and honest love and acceptance James receives, he is the more courageous one: the risk-taker who saves William’s life, fires at the enemy, steals that motorbike, joyriding it back to Alexandria – and ending up terribly injured and very AWL in the process.

From the moment William discovers James’s whereabouts – convalescing in the home of a couple who hold their own set of dangerous secrets – their affair is at last allowed to blossom:

Something passes between them: a wish, or an echo, or something beyond a man’s imagination. Whatever it is, William feels as though he is breathing air so sweet and thick it is like honey.

 The first touch between them in Alexandria, as men, with William briefly grasping the back of James’s wrist, is almost epic:

With the alcohol in his system, he did it: he gripped, he squeezed, and then let go. He took another swig from his bottle of beer. He tasted the delicious refreshing bitterness, felt another wave of intoxication.

And from James, taking in the sight of William as a man:

 Just look at you in your officer’s uniform… you’ve become a handsome man, your fine, brown hair parted exactly as required, but you’re unshaven, though your freckles can still be seen. You’re taller, you’re fitter, but I can still see the boy you used to be…

Although their meetings carry so much thrill and delight, there are no clichés of breathless lovers here. There is night swimming, an incidental touch in the back of a car, but love must be expressed behind closed doors, inside the home of their understanding hosts.

Uncertainty is the constant base note of the relationship, whether it’s waiting on a reply to a childhood note, or wondering if the other is alive or dead, but again, Featherstone is restrained. The tension is always real, as is their shared bravery. The provosts who stalk James in Alexandria, seeking to arrest him, are like ghouls, shadow-shapes, who seem more to represent the way the behaviour of men in Australian society is heavily policed – and so often by toxic forces.

William’s relationship with a young woman at home is explored with sensitivity and realism, too. In comparing this with his love for James:

 William drew a mental line from Jillian to James – two points on a map… But those two points on a map differed in value. They were like stars in the night – one was bigger and brighter than the other.

Details of military life are also faithfully rendered, demonstrating the depth of Featherstone’s research: from the maddening desert storms, to the quirks that develop in the relationships among men; the endless training and boredom of army life, contrasted with the sudden drama of attack; and the soul-wrenching devastation that follows action.

The writing is stripped back in the main, allowing for a direct kind of loveliness; for example, a description of William’s mother: ‘she smelt of perfume, wine and tears’; and James’s description of kissing William:

The soft press of hot blood. Rough stubble above and below the lips. The fuggy warmth of day-old breath, of orange pieces, of red wine.

There are many words of wisdom as well: ‘the best things happen to those who can wait the longest’; and on the healing properties of kissing itself: ‘Were kisses really that powerful? He supposed they could be – a certain type of kiss.’ And from James’s mother, on his decision to join up, perhaps the most beautiful words:

I will grant you permission, if that’s what you are looking for, but on [the following] condition: when I see you on the other side of this, no matter how your body might look or feel, you will still know who you are, and you will still know who I am, and we will recognise each other, and we will be with each other again.

If there is a criticism to be made, occasionally, in striving to broaden the scope of the narrative, the stories that intersect with that of the lovers seemed to convolute rather than add deeper strands of meaning, but perhaps that’s because this reader was always so keen to stay with James and William themselves. They are such richly drawn characters, who endure well beyond these pages.

The ending holds one last particularly savage revelation, but also further layers of love. It’s difficult to say more without giving it away, but those who enjoy good love stories will no doubt find the conclusion of this one interesting and satisfying in equal parts. Bodies of Men is, most wonderfully, though, a novel that says sweetness and strength in a man make for no contradiction but are two halves of a whole, and that shows each man, in his own way, is a ‘dangerous story’.

Nigel Featherstone Bodies of Men Hachette Australia 2019 PB 324pp $32.99

Kim Kelly is the author of eight novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile. Her latest novel, Sunshine, was published in March 2019. Find out more about Kim at:

You can buy Bodies of Men from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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