Buy this book: that’s an order! You will not be disappointed. Once or twice in every generation a new young author bursts onto the literary scene and creates a stir. Having gone to bed one evening almost unknown, he or she wakes up as a celebrity. If this has not already happened to Barney Campbell, I suspect that it is about to; his novel Rain was published on 30 July and the critics are excitedly discussing and writing about it. Apparently it is selling well. That is unsurprising; the book is a pleasure to read. Campbell’s prose is clear, explicit and elegant. It is difficult to believe that this is the work of a first-time author and in fact Campbell is not totally new to the writing game. He has already established himself as a reviewer and was recently the runner-up for The Spectator’s Travel Writer Prize. Rain, however, is his first novel.
- Barney Campbell
Not only was your reviewer impressed and moved by this book: so have been Jeremy Paxman, the distinguished novelist William Boyd and Tom Petch, the writer and Director of The Patrol, to name only three. None of these men is normally lavish with his praise. Although it is a novel, not a work of history, Tom Petch considers that it “could be the defining account of British soldiers in Afghanistan”. Lieutenant General Sir Barney White-Spunner goes further: “A thrilling story of men who become soldiers. The most accurate and moving modern portrayal of the spirit of the British Army”. In all seriousness, very few young authors have attracted this level of notice and critical approval since Kipling published his Barrack Room Ballads in 1892 amid a snowstorm of favourable reviews.
The novel follows the progress of its hero, Tom Chamberlain, who “was born to fight in Afghanistan. That does not mean that he was a natural soldier, though he became a very good one; simply that the circumstances of his family history, birth and upbringing meant that for him joining the British Army was an absolute inevitability”. Barney Campbell reportedly wrote the book partly as an exorcism of his own experiences in Afghanistan but also to help families – his own included - friends and others to understand the reality of life as experienced by soldiers on active service in a war zone. The inability of civilians to comprehend what this involves is brought out in Tom’s encounters with them when he is home on leave. The feelings of parents, wives, children and girlfriends, and the soldiers’ determination to minimise the danger when talking or writing to them, are sensitively treated.
This book is not recommended as a present for the nervous or faint-hearted. For many of us, this is as near as we will ever get to experiencing life and death in Helmand at that time. The descriptions are authentic: exciting, profoundly moving, unbearably harrowing and often stomach-churning. They are also heartening; a celebration of friendship, loyalty and comradeship. Although the story does not have a happy ending, which many real men’s stories did not, it is often very witty. Will’s letters to Tom on pages 45 -49, written in pure Army slang, are very funny indeed, if you can understand them: “Three weeks ago I couldn’t have looked more crow. Now I’m allyer than Andy McNab!” (This quotation deserves to be made into a lyric and set to music.) Fortunately the author provides a glossary.
Although much of the description is based on the author’s experiences and observations during his five years as an officer with the Blues and Royals, Barney Campbell’s novel is not disguised autobiography. His background and personal circumstances are quite different from those of his hero, Tom Chamberlain: for a start, Campbell and his father, another retired Army officer, are both very much alive. Tom Chamberlain is a representative good young officer from an undistinguished family background who wins a place at Cambridge and then goes to Sandhurst before being posted to the (fictional) King’s Dragoons. He is integrity and decency incarnate; very committed to his men, their welfare and morale, and they try look after him too. Little though modern Britain and its recent Governments deserve such soldiers, men like Tom, his NCOs and troopers still exist in the Army.
The great question now is: will Barney Campbell be able to sustain this quality of writing? As yet we do not know, but if he can produce further novels as distinguished and readable as this one, Andy McNab and other writers of “tuff” military novels will have to look to their laurels.