The New Recruit.
This review is late.
I just thought I'd get that out of the way. In this case, it's late because I was travelling, and seeing a show at Leicester Comedy Festival, which is definitely the best Leicester-based comedy festival taking place during February that I know of.
The show I saw, DNCG: Jack Britton's Discussion Kitchen, showing at the Upstairs at the Western theatre, will be getting a review on this blog some time this week. It is not, however, the subject of this review, as the particularly sharp amongst you may have already guessed.
Train station WH Smiths are the saviours of harried people who need something to read and, in this case, review for their terribly book-free review blog. As I perused the shelves, I found a rather slim volume with a confused looking young man on it, titled The New Recruit by Andy McNab, and with a blurb that, er …
… Well, it didn't sound interesting, to be honest, but it sounded short and outside my usual tastes in books, so I thought I'd give it a shot, seeing as this was on Saturday and I had a review to write by the next day (that went well, didn't it).
The New Recruit is the story of Liam Scott, a young man who, the blurb informs us, accidentally kills his friend with a prank. Don't open the book expecting to see that part looked at in any detail: After about three paragraphs worth of flashbacks and about three sentences spent on his reaction, the book hurtles forward into his Army training, as if to go “THAT'S WHAT WE'RE ALL HERE FOR, AM I RIGHT? NOT THIS ~EMOTIONAL~ STUFF.”
Perhaps for the book's target audience, that really is what they're there for, and I can't really blame Andy McNab for catering to them. But in that case, why bother with that tidbit of backstory at all? With the exception of the prologue, Liam never seems to be at all traumatised by this incident, nor does he blame himself – if anyone brings it up, he's quick to point out that it wasn't his fault, that the friend in question just tripped while on a rooftop. It provides motive for a minor antagonist to try to kill Liam, but to be honest, if there's any narrative set-up that allows for someone to very rapidly decide to murder a comrade without the need for a shared backstory, it's We're a set of army recruits and we're out on an extremely stressful and dangerous tour of duty.
So I can't really blame McNab for skipping over that, even though I really, truly want to. Nor can I really malign the quality of the writing, which is technically quite good, even if it's never exactly striking. What I can blame him for then, is that his main character has the approximate personality of a brick and is about as interesting as Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs if it was rewritten into a five act play by Anton Chekhov.
I can see the thought process that took place. Liam is meant to be an everyman, a boy who could in theory come from any part of the UK (we are indeed never told where he comes from, except that it isn't Birmingham), could fit into roughly any social class from working to upper middle, and who can be identified with by a fair proportion of this book's target audience. But 'everyman' does not have to mean 'dull', and Liam is dull. Painfully, torturously dull, to the point where if I had to describe his personality to you right this second, the only thing I would be able to come up with is 'suspiciously quick to deny fault in his friend's death.' The only thing that might have spiced up his character, some inner torment over his involvement in the death of a friend, is skimmed past nearly every time it comes up.
It would help if we had any other three-dimensional, interesting characters to bear the load. We do not: We have Liam's commanding officer, whose personality starts at 'gruff' and ends at 'but fair'; we have minor antagonist Mike, who is 'bitter and sinister'; we have Cameron, who is 'working-class but more overtly than Liam if Liam is 'working class'; and we have someone else, whose name I don't remember (and might be Cameron again?) whose personality is 'sometimes makes jokes'.
No women, I will note, and while the setting does have an excuse for that, being mostly based on the front line of Afghanistan, there – are women in the Army, and in Afghanistan. Women servicemembers have been instrumental in operations in Afghanistan, so would it kill you, McNab, to put a single one in?
Far be it from me to doubt Andy McNab's portrayal of the armed forces, though, since, as the publishers strain to inform us at every opportunity, he had a long and decorated military career prior to becoming an author. But I do have to say that, as a total layman who knows nothing about the Army, McNab's portrayal of it, in addition to lacking any women (even if that is realistic, and I'm not convinced it is, that bothers me), seems weirdly inconsistent.
It's not just that every time it seems to be being portrayed as particularly tough, a character will cartwheel by and sing 'But so rewarding!' at the audience just in case they forgot. That's fairly standard, I've come to expect that from everything from soldiering to midwifery to tennis by now. It's that the Army is presented as hyper-effective when McNab is making a point, and oddly powerless when the plot demands it. Much is made of the iron authority of Liam's commanding officer, yet when Liam, who has never given said officer any reason not to believe him because that would require a personality, accuses another soldier of attempting to murder him, his response is “Well, both of you stay away from each other for now.” It's roughly the same response you'd get if a child in primary school told his teacher that Jimmy with the weird hair (Jimmy does have weird hair, it's better we accept that now) was poking him constantly.
I won't say that The New Recruit was disappointing, because my expectations were not blindingly high for it, but Heart of Darkness it is not. What it is, apparently, is part of a series, with its sequel The New Patrol hitting bookshelves soon.
I can't decide whether I want to read it to mock it, or whether I want to stay far away from it. We shall see.