Barry England – Figures in a Landscape

This book typifies so much I don’t like in fiction. It is set during a war. It is about soldiers. It is almost a thriller. It is written in spare, straight prose. It is obviously influenced by the work of Ernest Hemmingway…

And bloody hell is it good.

Figures in a Landscape is the story of two prisoners of war trying to escape across the tropical landscape of an unknown, presumably Asian country. It is very hard to talk about the plot except in the most general terms without spoiling the novel, and I don’t want to spoil the novel, because you really should read it. Must read it. The end of the book affected me more than almost any book I have ever read. As a reader, and as a writer, I was blown away by what England did with the last page. I am still reeling.

This is storytelling in its purest form, the narrative moves, literally, across the landscape; but it is also deceptively sophisticated. The narration is largely third person but has no qualms about passing into the thoughts of either of the two soldiers without warning or marker. Speech is rarely attributed. This method works because the characters of MacConnachie (older, senior, brutal, animal) and Ansell (younger, junior, smarter, resourceful) are so neatly and clearly drawn that the reader is never confused.

MacConnachie and Ansell are chased by a helicopter, the pilot of which takes on an almost mystical status in the minds of the soldiers. Hidden behind glass, he is the eyes, and the brain of their pursuers, who follow behind in increasing numbers, running the two escapees to ground. The helicopter is the edge the enemy has that makes MacConnachie and Ansell underdogs and that makes their journey one of unbearable tedium interspersed by horrible, panicked tension.

There is a film of this book that I hope never to see. The book is part of me and I don’t want that ruined by someone else’s vision of it. When I read the blurb for this book, I’ll admit, I didn’t hope for much but Figures in a Landscape blew me, and some of my misconceptions, away. It is a brilliant novel.

Out of print – available widely second hand.

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