‘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 deserts and finds a way to receive medical help – but it comes at a price. Once her sex is revealed, she is incarcerated in an asylum and treated despicably. Worse yet: news reaches her that Bartholomew is having trouble at the farm – when will she come back?
Recovery and homecoming form the final third of the novel. Ash recuperates in Ohio on her return journey and helps with the construction of a greenhouse:
We went inside. Stood among the empty benches. As we watched, the sun tore off its cloud and lit up a hundred likeness images. It was the happy faces of fifty men gone off to war and fifty women didn’t. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe there were some standing up there straight in their Sunday dresses were out right that minute on the field holding rifles, getting their arms sawed off, dying over their slops, singing it out with all the rest of them about watch fires and fateful lightning and the coming of the Lord. Away off somewhere in that other country knowing they would never get home.
Ash cannot rejoin Bartholomew until she has done her time in the wilderness, it seems. Neverhome, with its emphasis on strength and wiles and its tension between war and domesticity, is suffused with the spirit of the Odyssey. Ash is so brilliantly conceived and written that the inversion of gender roles feels nothing less than natural.
The ending is in equal parts surprising and satisfying, as Ash’s actions take on a dreadful momentum. I was left wanting more from this entrancing novel. Ash is a thoroughly compelling narrator and Neverhome a dark gem of a book.