Adam Foulds’ third novel, In the Wolf’s Mouth, is a fairly conventional war story that is elevated by understated writing but which is nevertheless insightful enough to provide some traction to a story and set of characters which might at times seem overly familiar. Essentially a war novel which follows the Allies’ advance through North Africa and Sicily from 1942 onwards, Foulds’ tale provides experiences from soldiers hailing from either side of the Atlantic.
Will Walker, the British protagonist and Ray Marfione, an Italian-American, are to all intents and purposes as extraordinary as their names, that is to say not at all. Neither provide the kind of electrifying anger or acidic satire that, for example, Sassoon or Orwell might exhibit but then perhaps they aren’t supposed to. These are ordinary men caught in extraordinary times and, as clichéd as that sounds, the premise works well.
“Adam Foulds has remade a history” blusters the blurb rather grandiosely. In actuality, if Foulds had decided to focus on the Allied advance starring everymen, he would have been in danger of simply parroting history rather than re-making it. However, Foulds’ prose elevates these soldiers’ stories with wonderful finesse, seeking to depict the war beyond binary narratives of them and us, liberator and liberated, invader and conquered. This is no Tarantino-
esque caricature where every German soldier is a fanatic Nazi and every Italian prays for Allied liberation. Foulds explores the wider divisions and connections between Fascist Party members, Italian aristocracy and the German military, but he achieves some sense of character beyond the social labels ascribed to each member.
Foulds’ characters seem to be placed somewhere between archetype and everyman, erring just on the right side of stereotype. Will in particular is a Rupert Brooke type whose patriotic faith in the Empire is matched only by his naivety in the face of war-time realities. His likening of the “cosiness” of tribal tents in a “liberated” North Africa to “an English cottage with a lively fire and rain beating on small panes of leaded glass” is a realisation of the same idealised imagery that Brooke naively wrote of before engaging in actual warfare. In the same way, Will’s boyish excitement and desire to experience “the bright incipience of adventure, of the action he was sailing towards” is maintained by Foulds only by holding a frustrated Will apart from the front line action. In this aspect, Will often seems a little more 1914 than 1942.
Meanwhile, Ray is thrust into combat, where Foulds’ style becomes intentionally fragmented, and his keen eye for images made clear; one soldier’s incapacitating fear whilst clutching his rifle barrel is, for example, likened to “the way a mouse holds onto the stem of grass with its little white hands in the picture on the cereal packet.” Pictures are repeatedly used throughout by Foulds as a motif that connects past and present; they conjure up perhaps the most poignant and beautifully realised moment of the entire novel when Ray notes the similarity between the “solemn” children lining the streets to watch their liberators pass, and his own photos of his Italian relatives. Recalling his mother’s comment that most of the well-groomed children would be wearing hired clothes for the occasion, Ray discovers the facade of Fascist war imagery:
Here these children were now, famished in the middle of a war. On the walls behind them, already defaced, were posters of Mussolini. They shouted at Ray in his parents’ language. Believe! Obey! Fight!
Where Foulds’ novel ultimately shines is in the interlocking nature of the narrative strands. These disrupt the familiar invader/liberator narrative and instead establish a view of Italian culture where the war is but a passing diversion for the Mafioso aristocracy. Foulds paints history as cyclical and continuous, the continuity for him being in maintaining the pre-war criminal hierarchy. The war’s end is therefore not the story’s end: Sicily’s story of conflict remains unfinished and unfinishable.