BROTHER TO DRAGONS. By David Hartnett. 440pp. Cape. Paperback, Pounds 9.99. - 0 224 05015 X.
David Hartnett's obvious delight in language (he is also the author of three collections of poetry) is the most striking feature of this unusual and ardent novel. He adopts the voice of a turn-of-the-century novelist - verbose, discursive, even a little pompous - to transport us into the era of the First World War. The story begins just before the outbreak of the war, when young, spinsterish Beatrice arrives to take up a teaching job in the tiny community of Ecclesden Halt, tucked beneath the South Downs. Almost instantly, she falls in love with the landowner's effete and unreliable son, Charles Tremain, and soon becomes entangled, not only in Charles's difficult relationship with his childhood soul-mate Eric (a rugged, mysterious quarryman), but with the feuds, superstitions and tensions that surround the chalk quarries.
When war begins, Beatrice goes to nearby Chalkhampton - a thinly fictionalized version of Brighton - to be a VAD. In her lodgings, she meets Maud, Charles's outspoken "distant cousin", a suffragette who relishes casual sex despite a vehemently disparaging attitude to men. But their friendship is shattered when Maud has sex with Charles just before he leaves for the front with Eric. In a final episode, told with fearsome intensity, Charles turns up at Beatrice's house, claiming that he has sustained a "Blighty wound". Obviously deranged and shell-shocked, he digs himself a trench in the garden, and begins to re-enact his experiences of the trenches with Eric. Before Beatrice can get to the bottom of what happened, Charles is apprehended by the military police for desertion.
Brother to Dragons contains powerful elements: superstition, folklore, family feuds, first love, incest, war, sex and death. But Hartnett's lengthy descriptions - a function of his deliberately old-fashioned style - deplete the impact of his subject matter. A tug of war, for instance - an event crucial to the plot - when drawn out over four pages loses some of the tautness that would make it a genuine moment of tension. There is an underlying anxiety to the writing: what could be left implicit - Charles and Eric's love-hate relationship, for instance - is stated and restated until its significance is diluted.
Hartnett's language is consistent, and it certainly evokes the period. A certain verbosity can, perhaps, be read in the spirit of authenticity. "What cause", Beatrice asks herself on meeting Charles, "had this privileged and protected scion to lean so frequently towards lamentation?" But Hartnett's elaborate - and often impressive - descriptive powers mean that both marginal and significant details are subject to frequent embellishment. Consequently, pace can be sacrificed. Beatrice's traumatized vomiting is "the nudity of antiperistalsis"; even the midges "coiled in their incomprehensible, oscillating dance".
Descriptions of people, though equally inventive, might also benefit from pruning. An early encounter between Beatrice and Eric places Eric in an overtly Lawrentian mould - sweating, half-naked, he "chawed at (his food) noisily". With a kiln raging in the background, it is, she notes, a scene of "heat and appetite". Elsewhere, Lady Tremain, with her jewels and aristocratic hauteur, is economically encapsulated in one sentence: "The translucency of her skin gave her an almost posthumous feel." But the ensuing layers of description muddy this striking image.
The two principal female characters are the most intriguing. Beatrice is complex: gullible, naive, yet prone to impetuous outbursts; she is, most of all, a neurotic prisoner to her own virginity. And Maud, her opposite, is also a forceful presence. In comparison, Charles, with his eczema, slim thighs and class-ridden cowardice remains a little typecast, as does the well-hung, swarthy quarryman, noble to the end.
This is an earnest endeavour by a gifted writer. And it is in the intermittent moments of lightness and subtlety - unexplained flashbacks, or semi-hallucinatory episodes - that Hartnett's admir-ably expansive themes come alive.