By Sandi Toksvig
There is a wealth of fiction set against the backdrop of WWI (Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End ) so it is infinitely refreshing to read something different – Valentine Grey is set against the second Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. The war isn’t as well known as other major conflicts of the last century; nor is it widely known that the British tactics included the early use of concentration camps. The novel focuses on three major characters against this backdrop: Valentine Grey, a free-spirited young woman, raised in India, who feels stifled when obliged to adapt to the obligations of London society lifestyle; her lively cousin, Reggie, who she eventually discovers is homosexual; and his older more experienced lover, Frank, who works as an actor.
Reggie’s father attempts to get his rather feckless son to ‘man up’ by enlisting him to fight in the war. But Reggie is wholly unsuited to become a soldier, and is also deeply in love with Frank. He cannot face the prospect of being separated from him. Valentine sees an opportunity: she impulsively cuts off her hair, dons his uniform, and goes to the war in his stead. Despite, some close calls, her masquerade goes undetected, and at first the freedom is exhilarating. But when Valentine and her regiment finally face actual battle, and the casualties mount up, the horrors of war mark her irrevocably. Equal narrative time is devoted to Reggie and Frank back in London, and their storyline proves to be as compelling as Valentine’s. Though their idyll together proves to be all too brief, and they endure a personal hell, not dissimilar to war. This is an extremely well-written novel: the historical background in Assam (India), London, and South Africa is fascinating and portrayed with great atmosphere and detail; the strong, lively characters are very well drawn and avoid falling into clichés; and the tricky dual narrative unfolds in equally compelling strands. The novel does become increasingly grim and unsentimental, but this is wholly appropriate given the background of war and is finely judged. Valentine Grey is also one of those rare novels which will appeal to both gay men and lesbians, as well as the general reader.