In Pale Battalions, by Robert Goddard

>> Saturday, May 11, 2013

TITLE: In Pale Battalions
AUTHOR: Robert Goddard

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Various points in 20th century England
TYPE: Fiction

Six months after her husband's sudden death, Leonora Galloway sets off for a holiday in Paris with her daughter Penelope. At last the time has come when secrets can be shared and explanations begin...

Their journey starts with an unscheduled stop at the imposing Thiepval Memorial to the dead of the Battle of the Somme near Amiens. Amongst those commemorated is Leonora's father. The date of his death is recorded and 30th April, 1916. But Leonora wasn't born until 14th March 1917.

Penelope at once supposes a simple wartime illegitimacy as the clue to her mother's unhappy childhood and the family's sundered connections with her aristocratic heritage, about which she has always known so little.

But nothing could have prepared her, or the reader, for the extraordinary story that is about to unfold.

In Pale Battalions starts with two women, mother and daughter, visiting a 1st World War grave in northern France. The mother, Leonora, points out the date on her own father's gravestone. It indicates he couldn't actually have been her father. And so the story begins, starting with the story of Leonora's life, growing up with her villainous step-grandmother, who makes the girl's doubtful parentage clear and her life hell. It's clear to Leonora that there's some sort of mystery surrounding the circumstances of her birth, but it's only years later that an old soldier friend of her father's approaches her and tells her the whole story about what happened at Meongate, the family pile, around the time when Leonora was born.

It's a complex, melodramatic story, full of twists and turns, but I had too many issues with it to really enjoy it. My main issue, I think, was that the type of plot it was: one of my least favourites. It felt like a steamy, seamy soap opera/family saga, Dynasty on steroids, full of villainous characters who are evil purely because they're evil (the grandmother, Olivia, I found particularly unbelievable). The characters are all either horrendous or weak and rather stupid, and I found it very hard to give a fig about them and their fates.

Most of the book is told in flashback, as Leonora tells her daughter her story, which, in a sort of nested fashion, includes a long section in the middle narrated by her father's friend, Tom Franklin. Tom is the person who reveals the dramatic events that went on in Meongate in 1916, and the first to tell Leonora about her mother, who'd been dismissed by evil Olivia as a whore.

Tom is, to put it mildly, quite the piece of work. The problem is that I think he's meant to come across as a nice guy who stumbles upon a fraught situation and feels a responsibility to help his old friend's wife. Instead, I'm afraid he came across as a Nice Guy™. His reaction to Leonora's mother (also called Leonora) when she's basically screaming for help is classic. Instead of actually helping, even though he knows the guy who's clearly threatening her must have something on her, and is obviously coercing her into something, the horrible waste of space just mopes about how treacherous she is and how she had the chance to be with a nice guy like him but instead she's chosen to become involved with this awful man. Argh!! I just could NOT forgive that for the rest of the book, and hoped he'd die. He's also incredibly STUPID. If you've read this, I'm talking, for instance, about Cheriton's letter. Oh, for fuck's sake! He fucking knows Olivia is evil, and still hands her the letter! And then acts all surprised at her actions! And Leonora I wanted to shake and slap, as well. Just actually speak, woman, instead of playing games, hoping that someone will follow all your clues, reach all the right conclusions and do what you want them to do. If you've read this, I'm talking about her stunt with the telescope. Gah!

Guess you can tell the characters annoyed me? They annoyed me so much that what could have been quite a satisfying mystery, with lots of twists and turns, and big final revelations, didn't get much of a reaction. Plus, I could pretty much see most of the twists coming.

I also had issues with the way the story was told, supposedly as Leonora speaking to her daughter, and then Tom Franklin speaking to Leonora. It was a device that often felt unbelievable, as several times the narrator would tell the person listening details that I found very difficult to believe they would tell (mainly when speaking of issues with sexual content). Would Franklin really have told Leonora, whom he'd never meant before, exactly how a certain woman´s breast felt like when he cupped it? Really? Seriously!

So, not a huge success, I'm afraid. Just not my cup of tea. On the other hand, I reckon my mother would love it, so I've sent it on to her!



Anonymous,  29 September 2015 at 15:45  

My book club had a disagreement as to whether Franklin and John Hallows actually changed places. It seemed clear that Hallows did go to die in WWI two times to some readers but some found a quote in the epilogue that indicated otherwise. What do you think and where are your opinions supported by quotes from the novel?

Rosario 11 October 2015 at 20:14  

I'm afraid it's been a little bit too long since I read it for me to remember the details! Have you tried posting your question on goodreads, on the book's page? You might have better luck there finding someone who's got a better memory than me!

Unknown 8 September 2018 at 17:44  

I read this a week ago on holiday- a book I picked up from the hotel library. I’ve read Goddard before and really enjoyed his style and stories and this didn’t disappoint. Until the end. I had to read the last few chapters twice, thinking I’d missed something, but no, earlier in the book I’m sure that Hallows and Franklin swapped places but in the epilogue it says otherwise inferring that the younger Leonara actually met her grandfather.

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