Queer military fiction set during World War II
Content warning: war
I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.
“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.
As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.
I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.
Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.
3 responses to “Bodies of Men”
I enjoyed your review Angharad – it’s always great reading reviews of books you’ve read yourself isn’t it. You’re right about the handling of intimacy here. It’s beautifully done. As for the beauty of the male body, don’t forget “David”!! Haha – not that I’ve known many like that myself!
Re the Hillen family, you make an interesting point. However, I think it’s Yetta who contributes one of the themes of the novel: ‘People must care for people. It’s not more complicated than that.’ Therefore, I don’t think she needs it to be a fair exchange, and so neither should we?? Also, in a way, her husband and son flesh out some more examples of men during war which contributes to the overall theme of men in war?
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Great points as always, Sue. Of course you’re right Yetta was not giving care with the expectation of anything in return, and you’re right that her husband and son brought more perspectives. Maybe given the amount of digging that James did, I would have seen a little bit more about the son?
Beautifully done though, no question!
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