THE historical thriller Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray, is a book that you struggle to put down and struggle to forget. It is an immersive experience in a ruined emotional landscape within a ruined physical landscape.
It is 1919. Amy Vanneck comes to the moonscape of the Somme battlefields to find the body of her fiancé, Edward Haslam. He vanished in the last months of the war, and she needs to see him buried beneath a named headstone before she can rest. Steering by a borrowed trench-map, she tries to find anybody who remembers him, and where he might be lying — and then she is drawn into the discovery of a horrifying atrocity that cannot remain hidden.
Gray has been a journalist for most of his adult life. He was inspired to write Two Storm Wood after discovering his grandfather’s trench maps and scribbled notes. Gray is a clever storyteller, using different narrators, as well as letters, to tell his story. The whole book is heavy with threat and foreboding, with dreadful devastation. It is part historical novel, part murder mystery, and part horror story: some of the descriptions of post-mortems are grimly detailed. Gray wants us to be unsettled and off-balance, partly because of the mystery that he is writing, and partly because a story about the First World War should, he has said, shock us.
From the very first chapter, it is clear that we must not trust appearances or what people say. Whom can we trust is a question that runs throughout the book in a way that draws us in. In some ways, Amy represents the reader: an innocent out of place in a world that she does not know and can barely imagine.
Two Storm Wood has four great achievements. It is, first, a devastating description of what remains after four years of brutal modern warfare. Amy must not leave the road, because the flooded and ravaged mud that surrounds her has not yet been cleared of munitions. Everything seems brown, leaden, heavy, featureless. Pain and destruction seep from the earth on to the page and into the reader.
Second, Gray recreates a horrifying world, which is brilliantly researched and completely credible. He is a master of detail, of what it was like to row on the Cam in 1916, or lead a trench raid in 1918, or how French civilians lived in their destroyed houses in 1919, and how the battlefields were cleared after the Armistice. Some authors would want to demonstrate their research and knowledge with heavy description. Gray is different. Every detail that he includes serves the narrative.
Third, the wounded characters that Gray creates emerge hauntingly from this bloody landscape. All of them are scarred, either visibly or within. As their stories develop, we get glimpses of who they were before the war, what waits for them at home, and how they have been irrevocably altered by what they have endured.
Philip Singleton, the author of Two Storm Wood, published under the pen name of Philip Gray
Edward Haslam, his letters reveal, is changed utterly by the war. Captain Mackenzie says that he cannot go home and leave the war dead lost beneath the soil. The stories of other characters remind us that damage is done to us outside wartime, too, by childhood trauma and the death of a child. And Amy’s own story is one of grief and regret, leading to her liberation from the doll’s house of upper-class life which she has been raised to inhabit.
Gray creates compelling characters in a way that is natural and draws us to them. He describes landscape sparingly, and he does the same with his people: a small detail conveys a great deal of insight. There are monsters and quiet heroes on the page, and we are drawn to the monsters even as we fear for the heroes. Vanneck and Haslam, Westbrook and Rhodes, Sir Evelyn and Farrer, and Hughes and Mackenzie — we understand something of their lives and their past, and what they have endured, and we come to care for them.
Finally, there is the need to uncover the person responsible for the horrific discovery of butchered bodies beneath a German strongpoint — but, when mass murder happens in the midst of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, which rules apply? And why should we spend more time on these dead than the thousands lying lost in the earth all around? It is good and heartening that, even as the book focuses on this mystery, companies of men continue to scour the landscape for those who have been lost from sight in battle.
Parts of Two Storm Wood are hard to stomach, but Gray is consciously making a point about conflict, and how the damage done to us and to society brutalises us, making us pass it on, to the harm of others. It is a message that we keep failing to learn, as individuals and as nation states. That reality is not only the legacy of the First World War, but of every conflict before and since. Do conflicts ever actually end? The frail shoots of hope which end the book, the possibility, hint at where new life might begin.
Canon Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, and Area Dean of Sonning, in the diocese of Oxford.
Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray is published by HarperCollins at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-5291-1365-5.
Listen to Richard Lamey in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. To listen visit: churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.
TWO STORM WOOD — SOME QUESTIONS
- What scars remain once the guns fall silent? And how do people and communities live with what they have endured?
- What is the moral compass at the heart of the story?
- How do you explain the changes that Edward Haslam undergoes in the book?
- Is Amy a plausible character? Is her journey credible?
- Why are Rhodes’s men so loyal to him? Why is he such a good soldier?
- Would you recommend this book to others? What would you say to them to prepare them for what they will find?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 1 December, we will print extra information about our next book, Akenfield by Ronald Blythe. It is published by Penguin Books at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-14-118792-1.
The rural classic Akenfield, written by the countryman Ronald Blythe, was published in 1969. During the mid-1960s, Blythe interviewed 50 people in the two East Suffolk villages close to where he lived, and asked them about everyday life in the countryside. He gave the pair of villages the fictional name Akenfield. Capturing authentic voices, ranging from blacksmith to doctor, Akenfield is an extraordinary oral history of a way of life which now, in many ways, has disappeared. Issues covered in this portrait of village life include farming, education, welfare, class, war, and religion.
Ronald Blythe (1922-2023) was a writer, an essayist, and a Reader. In the Church Times obituary in January 2023 (Gazette, 20 January), he was described by the Revd Malcolm Doney as “a man of letters, a man of the Church, and a man of the countryside”. For the last 45 years of his life, he lived in Bottengoms Farm, on the Essex-Suffolk border — an Elizabethan yeoman’s house that he inherited from the artist John Nash. It was the beauty of the Stour Valley which inspired his writing, and it became the subject of his long-running weekly column in the Church Times, “Word from Wormingford”.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
JANUARY: Charlotte by David Foenkinos
FEBRUARY: The Second Sleep by Robert Harris