Set during the American civil war Neverhome tells the story of gallant Ash Thomson, a married farmer who joins the Union Army in search of adventure. What makes Ash’s story stand out from the thousands of young men who followed a similar path is the fact that Ash is a woman.
Referring to her husband, Ash reasons: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,” Leaving him behind to tend their farm, Ash is driven to fight by the memory of her formidable mother and a wanderlust which taunts her like an itch that can’t be scratched.
Passing as a man isn’t too difficult for Ash given her fondness for arm-wrestling and facility with a firearm. She soon enlists and undergoes training.
On the way to battle Ash earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” by giving her coat away to an overexposed young lady who has suffered a wardrobe malfunction whilst cheering on the troops. This exploit is made into a ballad which follows Ash throughout her travails.
Over the course of the novel Ash experiences the horrors of soldiering first-hand and finds the possibility of switching between genders strategically useful. Her dual gender roles also give her more access to female perspectives and what their wartime experiences entails.
Along the way she encounters a heroic former agoraphobic, a professor of classics who is a reluctant colonel, a village where the soon to be dead bear witness to each others indiscretions in a public forum, and a widow who keeps an outdoor bed beneath the stars.
The story is told from Ash’s perspective so we have to take her word for truth in regards to the veracity of what transpires, although at times we are left to wonder whether our narrator is embroidering certain aspects of her tale.
As a result of experiencing the story through Ash’s eyes we are party to what may be hallucinations as war takes its inevitable toll on her psyche. A memorable moonlit bath with confederate soldiers ending with asphyxiation is one of the events of uncertain provenance.
Throughout the novel allusions are made to different tales about war, most obvious are the references to Odysseus. Similar to the Odyssey, the plot of Neverhome is as much about Ash’s homecoming as it is about her going to war.
Ash’s post-war encounter with Bartholomew, an inconstant Penelope as it transpires, is as important as her decision to go to war in the first place.
Neverhome is a very enjoyable novel. This is due, in a large part to the character Ash who is a well realised and genuinely interesting character. She is a pragmatist who does what she must to get by. While her actions are radical in terms of women’s expected roles at the time, Ash proceeds without an ideology, preferring actions over words. She doesn’t politely insist on equality but instead takes it using her cunning and her pistol.
Interestingly the physical aspect of Ash’s transformation is not dwelt on by the author. An occasional reference is made to certain precaution Ash must take to avoid discovery but it is not a central preoccupation of the novel. We are spared over-long depictions of breast binding and “gosh darn yer a girl!!!!” moments.
For the most part other characters accept Ash for what she presents herself as, her superiors perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to details like gender in the case of such a capable soldier.
By avoiding the temptation of stock gender switching clichés the author is free to create a genuinely original and engaging character who breathes new life into an almost worn out old trope.
I have not read any novels by Laird Hunt prior to Neverhome but I intend to rectify that in the near future.