Debutant novellist Angus MacDonald doesn’t waste any time jumping into the story of young Donald Peter (‘DP’) Gillies, a Lovat Scout soldier who lies in a makeshift hospital in Gallipoli in 1916.
While suffering a gunshot wound to his shoulder and blinded fi ghting on the front line against the Turks in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, he meets and falls in love with Queen Alexandra Corps nurse, Louise. And so their love story begins.
On attempting to transfer DP to a hospital boat, Louise, her patient and another nurse are blown off course and forced to make their escape through Turkey to Greece. The novel focuses on the lovers’ conversations, which last well into the wee, small hours, moving back and forth between tales of their time at war and describing their lives back home.
For DP, this is the story of his life in the West Highlands of Scotland: he tells Louise of the coast and the glens and his relationship with his family, giving her and the reader a vivid insight into the grand sweep and the details of everyday life in the Highlands a century ago.
A life full of bagpiping, ceilidh dancing, sheep shearing and the importance of loyalty to the community. Louise, in return, captivates DP and the reader with her description of a harsh upbringing in a Welsh coal mining community.
MacDonald takes us on the touching journey of these two young people as each in turn paints a picture of the conditions that they lived through during their time behind lines as medical staff, and as an ordinary soldier during a conflict that took so many lives it often resembled wholesale slaughter.
It is a fast-paced narrative and the characterisation is suffi ciently adroit that both DP and Louise make for deeply likeable characters. This book proves to be far more than yet another wartime love story, captivating the reader instantly with its incorporation of different locations, including old Highland communities, while also providing glimpses into other, contrasting ways of life of the time – the great shipping centres of Glasgow and Liverpool and the mining valleys of Wales.
MacDonald mines the themes of the feeling of community kinship, teamwork and courage as the narrative is developed.
MacDonald grew up in the Scottish Highlands and later served in his local regiment, the Queen’s Own Highlanders, which probably explains why his characterisation of DP feels so authentic. If MacDonald’s aim was to make DP a thoroughly engaging and moving character, then he succeeds in spades.
I flew through this novel in a day. MacDonald’s use of constantly unfolding drama and of tales of survival during the horrors of the First World War, balanced with the rewarding experience of getting to know the protagonists’ past, keeps the pages turning and makes it almost impossible to put down.
Ardnish Was Home, by Angus MacDonald, published by Birlinn, £8.99.