‘I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,’ says Ash Thompson, narrator of Neverhome. With that opening remark, Laird Hunt sets the tone of his sixth novel (the first to be published in the UK): matter-of-fact and propelled by action. Bartholomew stays on the farm in Indiana and ‘Gallant Ash’, as she becomes known after giving her jacket to a stranger, sets out to fight in the American Civil War. Yes, she: Ash is in fact Constance, Bartholomew’s wife, and one of several women who pretended to be men to go to war.
Neverhome is told in three parts. In the first, Ash travels to enlist, trains and receives her first taste of combat: ‘You followed them, simple as that, and if you didn’t follow them when the fighting was hot, you died. Maybe you died anyway. There was always that. Death was the underclothing we all wore.’ Death, it becomes apparent, was what drove Ash to fight: she pictures conversations with her dead mother and there are fleeting mentions of a baby lost during labour.
In the second part, Ash is injured in battle. Seeing that soldiers receiving treatment must undress, she