A title like “Neverhome” suggests a need that can’t be met; there’s no wiggle room with a word like “never.”
It’s a fitting concept for a story about going off to war; you either don’t make it back home, or you are so changed upon your return that you’ve become a square peg with a round hole.
Laird Hunt’s sixth novel follows a woman who decides she must leave her home and husband to go off and fight, disguised as a man, in the Civil War. She takes the name Ash Thompson, a name not chosen lightly or at random. She proves her mettle in short order and takes her place among other soldiers, off to fight against the Confederacy.
Her husband, Bartholemew, “was made of wool, and I was made of wire,” beyond which the reader learns little of the nature of their arrangement. What are the circumstances that would lead someone away from their home? Is she escaping from something or pursuing?
The answers to these questions only come in pieces, leaving the reader to connect them. She finds herself in danger repeatedly of being found out and of simply dying.
Away from camp with “a couple of greenhorns,” rebels capture them and lock them in a house. The only way out is for Ash — without tipping her hand to the other prisoners — is to revert to her former appearance and catch the captors off-guard, suddenly seeing one of their prisoners for who she really is.
Traveling to rejoin their camp, they find their journey stymied by an upswell of rebel soldiers. Changing course leads them to “a shallow grave cut for hundreds hadn’t had much of its top put on.” It leads them to a group of Southern civilians, sheltered near the wreck of a battered church, telling each other stories to distract themselves from the crossfire they fear will soon overtake them.
An old man’s story concerns “finding a dead fish with a live snake in its mouth one week and a dead snake with a live fish in its mouth the next,” and in many ways this comes to be the story Hunt is telling as well.
There are reversals, and other characters we come to learn have their own hidden lives, hidden agendas and disguises. Through it all, Ash is searching, trying to find an acceptable answer as to what compelled her to war, and what can be done to make it so she’s able to return home.
“Neverhome” isn’t exactly historical fiction, and the particular chronology of the Civil War, while not abandoned, plays a minor role. The result works to sharpen the narration, as if it’s coming from someone involved and not a historian.
Which isn’t to say that Hunt disregards the actual events of the war. His descriptions of preparations for battles, the long marches, the competitive camaraderie of soldiers knowing each day might be their last, these descriptions manage to convey the harshness of the path the Civil War took, without resorting to graphic details.
Hunt’s writing is straightforward, unadorned in its complete portrait. At no point does the story feel like one told by a man in the 21st century; it is all of a piece with the temperament and thoughts of a woman taking up arms for her country. Laird Hunt has crafted a body of work in which each of his novels feels like an extension of those that came before it.
Even with a wide range of subjects, his writing plumbs the depths of the the internal struggles we all face and the external circumstances that shape how we respond.
Matthew Tiffany is a freelance writer and book critic in Brunswick, Maine.
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt (256 pages; Little, Brown; $26)