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Korea is often mentioned as a forgotten war as it never gets the recognition that WW2 or Vietnam have. However, for the people who went to war and returned, Korea was as real as it came. It is perhaps the relative short length that means it is overshadowed by Vietnam, but in many ways Korea was more dangerous with the Chinese openly becoming involved. Prisoners of War at the time can attest that the treatment under the Koreans and Chinese was often gruelling as they were beaten and made to live in such poor conditions that many soldiers died. Being in a POW camp and making it out is always going to impact how you react and feel on returning home. James Lee Burke explores the idea of one man's lost soul after returning from Korea in 'Lay down My Sword and Shield'.
As part of a rich Southern family steeped in politics Hack Holland's natural charisma and good looks makes him a shoe in for politics. With the aid of his glamorous wife and loyal brother he is fast tracked to the big leagues. Unfortunately, Hack has a self destructive nature only heightened on his return from a Korean POW camp where he spent 3 years. Something changed in him when he was away and now the only thing that can silence the nightmares is drink. Can Hack hold it together long enough to save his burgeoning career and does he really care? Life has a funny way of throwing things at you when you least want them and Hack is tested to his brink when a he aids an old army pal and falls for a woman from the wrong side of the tracks.
'Sword' is the second book by James Lee Burke I have read in recent weeks. Burke is a great writer in terms of prose and wordsmanship. However, in terms of narrative I think he is praised far too much. On a positive note the writing is exceptional at times; Burke is able to paint one of the most vivid versions of America that I have ever read. The feel of late 50s US oozes off the page from the fashion, tone of voice and casual racism. Burke not only explores race in 'Sword', but also the idea of unions and Communism. These topics were very hot for the time and made tempers boil - this only adds to the tension in the book.
Burke is also a master of character and that is certainly the case with the damaged man, Hack. The book starts with you knowing little else about him other than he is a rich drunk who is mean to his wife and unfaithful. However, through interacting with other characters and a series of flashbacks we learn more about why Hack has apparently given up on life. Burke manipulates the reader brilliantly into respecting Hack and understanding why he is so self destructive. Due to the dominance of the one character it is unfortunate that no one else is explored in any depth.
With the sense of place and person once again established, Burke has fallen down in the one area that I find most important - narrative. He is a writer who people read just to soak up the prose; I am someone who needs more than that to keep me entertained. The story is paper thin at times and is merely a backdrop to the character of Hack and how he develops. This is a difficult thing to pull off as a reader can get bored - and I did. With no direction in the novel I was unsure why I was meant to care what happened to anyone. What makes it an even bigger shame is that the concept of a politician becoming mixed up with a socialist lover is ripe for a good story.
There are those who will love 'Lay down My Sword and Shield' despite its lack of story. This is one of Burke's earliest works and he has gone onto great success through sheer quality of prose. There are not many authors as good as Burke at describing the sticky summers of the Deep South. Unfortunately, I am not someone who is impressed by descriptions of places and I require some sort of investment to make it worth my while. Burke once again fails to do this and produces a wonderfully written amble about a man going nowhere and not doing much when he gets there. Still worth a read for someone looking for an interesting different type of book - but not for anyone looking for thrills or meaning.
Author: James Lee Burke
Price: amazon uk - £5.49