A combination of my fascination with the American Civil War and my feminist leanings made the description for Laird Hunt’s Neverhome stand out in my mind. Neverhome takes a look at the life and struggles of a Civil War soldier both on and off the battlefield but with a twist that raises the stakes: this particular soldier is a woman.
Constance Thompson has the itch to do her part for the Union forces. Most women would be content to send their husbands off to fight while they stay home and support them from afar, sending them care packages and joining local support groups, nursing, raising funds, or gathering supplies. But Constance has always had a more hands on approach to solving her problems and is a pretty good shot. Dressing as a man and adopting the moniker of Ash, Constance leaves her husband to take care of their farm while she crosses state lines to enlist.
I had such high hopes going into reading Neverhome based on the premise and subject matter that it was impossible for them not to be at least a little disappointed. Mostly my disappointment centers on wanting more and finding things a little too vague. It was a surprisingly short novel and there was plenty of material that could have been expanded. There’s something to be said for keeping the cast of characters small and vague. It can speak to the interchangeability of soldiers in a war where the numbers of casualties and dead were so high. It also ties into the premise that the narrator must protect her identity and keeping those around her at arms length, not getting to know her fellow soldiers too well is one way to keep her secret from getting away from her. But as a reader, I found it frustrating. I went back and forth in my attachment to the narrator and there were almost no supporting characters to latch onto instead.
Some of the distance is from the narrative approach itself. While it’s a first person narrative, Constance/Ash is narrating about events years later. At times the distinction becomes confusingly blurred and problematic. The approach makes more sense with a plot twist that comes in the final chapters, but before reaching that point it can make for difficult reading (and I’m not completely convinced that the payoff was worth it).
As far as the plot and the few characters we do get longer glimpses of, Neverhome is compelling. I just wish there had been more of it and that a slightly different approach had been taken. A more solid and immediate approach to the material would have left me with something more than just a, “that’s it?” reaction. The premise stands out but the rest of the novel fades in comparison. The ending goes a long way towards redeeming the novel as a whole and I’m willing to concede some of my initial reservations as far as the structure and approach are concerned, but it wasn’t enough to bring me anywhere close to the enthusiasm I had going into reading the book.
Neverhome will be available for purchase September 9, 2014.