Sue McCluskey's marriage is tense - her husband is unhappy about his semi-employed status and seems put out that she's the primary income earner, is always ready to interpret any remark about their sons as criticism toward them and him, and money's tight. So the prospect of a week's holiday away from London, with her old friend Marjoljin (considerately spelled throughout the book the way it's pronounced - Mariolain), her husband and two children in Holland seems like a fantastic way to get a breath and a new perspective. There's only the little matter of them having only seen each other once since the Venetian holiday where they first met, twenty years ago...
Best known for her acclaimed novel The L-Shaped Room, in 1986's Casualties Banks has created a book of deeper resonance, complexity and power. As the story of Sue's marriage to Cal is gently teased out, the darker story of Mariolain and husband Neils's marriage emerges, alongside the shadow cast on them by the War - unimaginably close to the Dutch, for a British observer.
This book reverberates on a number of levels - the pall cast on the present by events of the past, the depressing impact of past generations onto their descendants, the impact of gender identity on sympathy, the potential love has to overcome intellect, the power intellect has over compassion, the price academia has on humanity, and the triumph of survival.
I appreciate that none of this is very helpful when it comes to explaining what the novel is about. In part that's because I doubt I could capture the essence of the book in my own words, but it's also because the way the book unfolds so strongly contributes to the impact of reading that knowing details ahead of time would undermine the effect of the sequence Banks plotted. One's sympathies are swayed thither and yon, and the counterpoint of the British war experience highlights the very different War endured by those on the continent in general, and that of occupied Holland in particular. Cal predicts that the shadow of Vietnam will hang over Britain's head as long, and it is in many ways a shame that this is not the case, even for those countries, like Australia, that did, unlike Britain, participate.
I was inspired to borrow Casualties because I so enjoyed my first adult Lynne Reids Banks experience (I loved her children's book The Fairy Rebel when I was young). I'm interested in the second world war, and that undoubtedly contributed to my experience in reading this book, particularly as it graphically illustrates aspects of both the Dutch and Indonesian experiences, which I was previously woefully ignorant of. However that interest is by no means a prerequisite - Casualties is a human-centred story, layered and compelling. - Alex