Tim Pears’ novel In the Light of Morning sees the telling of a small part of the liberation of Europe by allied forced that occurred 70 years ago exactly. During this period, English troops supported Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia as they attempted to fight Nazi occupation. The novel takes us to the deep valleys and dense forests of Southern Slovenia, where three Englishmen are parachuted in, to guide Allied supply drops to aid the destruction of railway lines.
The three Englishmen range in rank, character and ideology. Major Jack Farwell, whose name hints at his ability to thrive in the challenging environment of partisan warfare is the most senior officer of the mission. A man who holds the partisans in contempt, his main aim seems to be to find the best alcohol he can, but his charmless exterior conceals a shrewd character, a fierce patriotism.
Lt Tom Freedman, his junior, is a middle-class scholar who excelled in linguistics at Oxford, much to Farwell’s scorn: ‘I wouldn’t trust you with my wife’, he tells Freedman, based on Tom being ‘too bloody handsome. And quiet! You don’t say enough’. Farwell’s Oxford, of family line and gentlemen’s thirds, is as remote from Tom as the realities of war are.
Dropped in Slovenia, Tom learns about the subtleties of trust and alliance, and is quick to learn from Jovan, the Partisan leader, but ultimately wary of his ideology. Additionally, he and Jovan develop an uneasy rivalry: Marija, a Jewish partisan and an excellent soldier, harbours types of affection for both of them. This love-triangle sits in opposition to the far simpler love narrative of Sid Dixon, a West-Country private who has never previously been out of Britain, and whose straightforward, dogged love affair with another Partisan soldier is brutally cut short.
Pears is invested in small details: the shift of the landscape from woods to valleys; the various meals prepared in peasant houses; the everyday tedium of war. Additionally, he is interested in the human spirit and its upper limits. We see destruction through Tom’s eyes: fresh, unexpected, and utterly alien to his ideas about the world. At the same time, however, the moments of violence in the novel act often as punctuation points in the litany of daily miles covered, conversations continued in broken Slovenian, hours of rest.
The beauty of this novel lies in the build-up of these tiny details, the way in which small decisions, minor betrayals, capture the vastness of war in miniature. Its weakness, however, lies here too. This is a quiet book, one that shies away from communicating the vivid horror of war in full sound and colour. The reader never quite looks atrocity in the face: and in the quiet rural landscapes of Slovenia, passions seem muted too. Tom’s ‘crisis of sexuality’ amounts to a few stolen moments eating strawberries with Jovan, their poignancy no more, or less, developed than any other aspect of the narrative.
Pears has created a beautiful, visual novel about an often-overlooked aspect of Allied effort, and it is important that these events are filled once more with life and vibrancy. In this novel, it is the countryside of Slovenia, and the slow attention to the moments that comprise lives, often largely unchanged even by warfare and danger, that make Pears’ In the Light of Morning a worthy addition to his previous works.