When Blackbirds Sing by Martin Boyd


6a00d83451bcff69e201a3fcf0b25a970bYou'll notice the road sign on the right warning about kangaroos or kiwis ahead. The happy news is that May is Australia and New Zealand Literature Month, a celebration hosted by Reading Matters. Not that I need any encouragement to seek out books by Australians…

I am sad to have now finished the last book in the Langton Quartet: they were all wonderful. My take on each of them here: The Cardboard Crown, A Difficult Young Man, and Outbreak of Love. The quartet describes the Australian Langton family who had an estate in Britain and for some generations, traveled back and forth between Britain and Australia. The impetus for these novels was the discovery by the narrator that his grandmother wrote 50 volumes of a diary beginning in 1855 when she married. Martin Boyd did have such a family and his grandmother did write a diary.

The narrator is in evidence in the first three novels, but is absent from this one. Though I missed his witty conversational tone, this novel works better without it. It is the continuation of the story of the narrator's brother Dominic, begun in A Difficult Young Man, which ended with Dominic's running off with his cousin Helena just before her marriage. They have had a lovely four years together on a farm in New South Wales and had just had a new baby when he goes back to England to join in the army there to fight in the First World War. It was notable that he did not enlist in an Australian unit, but returned to England, underscoring the family's ambivalent view of which country they belonged to.

Dominic is described as a microcosm of the extended Langton family: the passion of a distant murderous Spanish ancester, the "nonconformist rectitude" of an unpleasant aunt, and the sometimes inconvenient honor and wild generosity that cropped up in the family occasionally. We see how these strains move him while he is in the army during the 1914 war. 

When he arrived in London and during leaves, he saw his former fiance whose estate was near his family's Waterpark estate. Though he was not welcome when the engagement ended, her parents, Lord and Lady Dilton, were happy to see him in this circumstance. He joins Lord Dilton's unit and eventually goes to France. During a leave, he visited the Diltons and late one night over whisky, Lord Dilton unburdened himself.

We seem to be going to war to ruin ourselves. I don't like the Germans much. The Kaiser's a pompous ass, but I'm not prepared to commit suicide out of spite: and I'd rather have a German general than that damned Welsh Baptist [David Lloyd George].

During an offensive, Dominic sees his friend horribly wounded, then comes face to face with a young German soldier, looks him in the eye, and kills him. He is wounded himself and after he recovers, he realizes he will not fight again. "What made the war impossible for him was the brief exchange of human recognition as he shot the German boy." He writes a letter to Lord Dilton explaining his position and though Lord Dilton tries to dissuade him, he recognizes his own role in Dominic's viewpoint. If Dominic refuses to fight, he will face a court martial. Lord Dilton considers encouraging Dominic, wondering "Weren't there enough decent Englishmen to stop a generation being butchered to satisfy the ambitions of these adventurers?" In the end, Lord Dilton has Dominic sent to an asylum. Much later when Dominic knows he must leave or go mad, Lord Dilton has him invalided out and he returns to Australia.

This passage which comes as Dominic is on his way back to France before a major offensive reveals the author's own view of the war:

The governments and the generals on both sides must at this time have been on tenterhooks lest the soldiers woke up to the suicidal futility of their lives, that some common humanity such as that of Christmas 1914, or the sheer weariness which the French were beginning to show, might lead them simply to stop fighting. It would have been a disaster for either High Command if the enemy had walked away. There would have been no glory attached to victory. At Christmas 1914, this disaster had been prevented by a high-ranking English officer firing into the German lines while the opposing troops were dancing together round bonfires in No-man's-land.

In fact the recognition of the common humanity with the young German soldier does end Dominic's willingness to continue fighting. He says he is not a pacifist: he would fight for his farm in Australia or Waterpark, his estate in England, but he will not continue to commit murder on behalf of leaders who cause slaughter to occur for their own vain reasons.

This compelling book left me sad in a different way from David Malouf's Fly Away Peter. That one was lyrical and wrenching; this one stirs up your anger at politicians.

Martin Boyd, When Blackbirds Sing, Abelard-Schuman, 1962, 188 pages. Available at UVa library.

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