I first discovered Georgina Harding via my 2012 Orange Prize goodie bag which contained a copy of her shortlisted Painter of Silence. Despite that shortlisting, and her previous novel The Spy Game being a BBC Radio 4 "Book at Bedtime", she is nowhere near as well-known as she should be. This exquisite novel is about the aftermath of war, as Charlie, who survived the Battle of Kohima and months lost in remote jungles of Assam, comes home to life on a farm in Norfolk with his new wife Claire. But what, if anything, do the living owe the dead?...
The foundation is a quiet, intense, exquisitely descriptive and extraordinarily accomplished focus on the physicality of both her settings. Her prose is enriched with small epiphanies – on the nature of language and of solitude, on the human need for violence and for land, and on the unknowability of the other – and immediately seduces the reader... Within this bright frame Harding’s light but unerring hand at characterisation operates beautifully... Vivid, illuminating and unbearably tense, Land of the Living is a masterly meditation on trauma, on beauty, on the idea of home and on the limits of love.
Georgina Harding’s four previous novels – The Solitude of Thomas Cave, The Spy Game, Painter of Silence and The Gun Room – have all explored, in different territories, what trauma does to the psyche. Land of the Living is no exception. ...This is not, however, a bleak novel. During the war, Charlie might have despaired of the possibility that “decency could mend atrocity” but the quiet, pedestrian heroism of him and his wife ultimately suggests hope.
This is a novel which demands and deserves careful reading. It is written with an admirable precision, and the dark of the narrative has to be teased out. There are extremes of horror treated without sensationalism... It is a novel of ideas, for it invites you to think of questions of responsibility, exploitation, cruelty, brutality, but the ideas explored are presented dramatically, as ideas should be presented in a novel. It is one of those rare novels which has you thinking, when you reach the end, that there is much you have passed over which demands a second reading to be fully felt and understood.
This is the fourth novel by Harding, whose previous work has gravitated to raw, rugged landscapes, her protagonists grappling with guilt and loneliness... For the reader unfamiliar with either the Battle of Kohima or the less chronicled parts of the second world war, Land of the Living might be revelatory in many ways... For readers who do know this terrain, Land of the Living may feel incomplete, despite Harding’s careful research... Much of the quiet power and unexpected grace of the novel comes not just from the unusual backdrop but from Claire’s struggle to make something of the emotional silences and battle-scars that Charlie bears... This is an unshowy novel, not a dazzling triumph, but it adds to Harding’s growing reputation as an incisive chronicler of war and its aftermath. Wars end, but some carry the mass graves and the battlefields within them, all through the long years after.
It’s this juxtaposition that makes Land of the Living such a quietly powerful novel; it doesn’t particularly explore anything new about trauma in the aftermath of war, but Harding has drawn two exquisite characters to care about within a story of survival, and, in the end, hope.
Traumatised and isolated characters are at the centre of Georgina Harding’s novels. There is the taciturn crew member of a whaling ship, who spends a winter alone on an uninhabited island in the Arctic (The Solitude of Thomas Cave, 2006), and the British photojournalist struggling to unsee the horror of the Vietnam War (The Gun Room, 2016). In Harding’s fifth novel — her most audacious and moving — we meet another veteran, Charlie, who is “no more than a shadow” after having fought the Japanese in the remote jungles of Nagaland, India, during the Second World War...What it means to be civilised and to behave with decency are questions raised throughout this fine novel. When Charlie notices a freshly cut head inside a Naga’s bag, for example, it confuses him: “He is a headhunter, and we are fighting a war. So where does the crime begin?”
In each of these books, Harding’s graceful style and self-control illuminate the crushing weight of history on the individual, and how different strategies for survival can cause a lifetime of pain and regret...Land of the Living is a poised and carefully crafted novel of powerful, submerged emotions, taking an under-explored aspect of Britain’s war and finding in it something graceful and strange, mythic as well as deeply embedded in the brute physicality of existence.