While I know it’s not politically correct, I LOVE Gone with the Wind. I grew up with it (along with Luke Skywalker, Scarlett O’Hara is one of the defining influences in my life), and so I’m a sucker for a sprawling American Civil War epic. Unfortunately Look Away, the first in a pair of civil war novels, doesn’t quite fit the bill. Sprawling (as in over-long) yes, epic not so much.
After a brief prologue that sets the scene by showing the tensions the anti-slavery movement brought to the fore in 19th century America, the novel opens in New Jersey in 1859. We meet James and Kevin Bannon, sons of a nouveau riche Irish immigrant, and quickly learn that Kevin has pinched James’ fiancée. No sooner is this revealed than the poor girl is floating in the river, and James has been packed off to the Virginia Military Institute. Thus it comes to pass that the two brothers end up on opposite sides in the ensuing conflict, and the rest of the book charts their experiences in the first two years of the war, as they each struggle to find their place in the strange new worlds they are thrust into, make friends, fall in love, watch comrades fall in battles they survive and try to hold onto their sense of humanity.
Unfortunately it’s not very well written. Not self-published vanity project kind of bad, but not great. While I don’t doubt the historical accuracy and amount of research done by the author, the level of detail that goes into the battle scenes is unnecessary. Rather than transport you into the peril and turmoil of some of the most famous military clashes of all time (Bull Run and Gettysburg to name just two), you end up confused and bored by the endless descriptions of march and battle formations, and the loading of rifles and muskets. The characters are badly drawn ciphers, and more than once I had to remind myself which brother was which, who was on which side, and which plucky yet repressed girl they were in love with. Rather than being swept along, I found reading it to be a real chore.
Right then, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to watch a couple of episodes of North and South…