Garry Willmott has a unique style of story-telling. Many novelists construct a story which happens to take place in a particular period of history; Willmott, on the other hand, describes the history in detail and embeds his tale within it.
Most of us view history as some kind of solid object full of events, dates, places and famous people. But just as real solids are illusory, to the extent that the interstitial space is far larger than any 'solid' components, so too is history unless the enormous gaps can be peopled by the many minor characters who play their part. Willmott chooses largely fictional characters to immerse within their historical context, so we characterise his books as “novels'” though one comes away with the feeling that they are “interstitial” novels, designed as much to inform us of historical events as to entertain.
In 'Survival', his fourth novel, Willmott takes us on a sweeping journey through many of the seminal events of the first half of the twentieth century, from before the sinking of the Titanic to just after the Second World War. Since the period covers two world wars, the author chooses a largely military family (the Dohertys) to take us on this journey. The patriarch is American naval captain Joe Doherty. After Joe's death his son Jack joins the Marines and his daughter, Julie, becomes a doctor. Jack sees active service in World War One in the Luneville sector and at Belleau Wood, both graphically described by Willmott.
Meanwhile Julie, having graduated in Medicine, enlists as a medical officer to serve on the Western Front and meets up with her wounded brother before he is sent to England for treatment. This, and other episodes, provide the author with the opportunity to describe some of the medical procedures of the time, including plastic surgery.
Jack returns to the USA on the Carpathia – the voyage on which it was sunk by a German U-boat. Jack survives and spends the early 1920s in China where he again sees action briefly in 1922. By 1932, however, he has received a diplomatic posting to Berlin so we are able to see, through his eyes, the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. He and Julie both attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics which are described in detail.
Julie remains in England and marries the wealthy Dr Harry de Neville in 1929; he is from long established aristocracy so the author provides us not only with some of the contemporary activities of England in the 1920s but also a nice slice of English history.
The next major historical event is the second World War. Jack's diplomatic/military position in Berlin, as a Brigadier, allows the reader to see developments from an American perspective and by 1941 Jack, now a General, is privy to the developments at Bletchley Park and we are treated to some excellent detail of the work which led to the breaking of the Enigma Code. Meanwhile, in mid-1939 Julie and her husband sail for Singapore on the RMS Mauritania as surgeons to the colony.
With Jack now on less active service, Willmott allows the baton to be passed to the third generation of Dohertys, Peter and Tom, allowing the lead up to the D-Day landings of June 1944 and the operation itself to be excellently described (via Peter) and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and subsequent retaliation by the USA such as the battle of Guadalcanall (via Tom). Tom's capture provides an opportunity for the author to describe conditions on the “hell ships”.
This is not a full outline of the novel, but sufficient of it to show how the author, through the clever selection of his protagonists, has organised for one or other of them to be present at significant moments in recent history. The novel itself is, of course, allegorical, as is made clear by the ending, which should not come as too much of a surprise (shock?) to the reader who has understood the author's intent which is to both inform and entertain in more-or-less equal measure.
- David Needum
Books about disasters and wars can be informative for the non-historian, but so often they fail to fully engage the reader who can be left with a head full of facts and figures yet very little idea of the real people involved in the great moments of history.
Survival is not such a book.
Garry Willmott has done his research – thoroughly and persuasively – and presents an epic sweep of 20th century history from the sinking of the Titanicthrough to the end of World War II.
Survival is not simply a narrative of these events, which are in themselves interesting, but is also the story of three generations of the Doherty family who lived through these times in the US, Britain and Europe.
By weaving the living threads of the family’s lives across the stark facts of history, Garry Willmott has created an engrossing ‘must-be-read-at-one-sitting’ story.
- Sheelagh Wegman