Geoffrey Talbot is a schoolteacher in the 1930s who seizes on the outbreak of war as a way to escape his dull provincial existence and a role that has settled ‘on to his shoulders as easily as the black gown he hung up on the door’. We follow him through six years of international conflict – he aids the French resistance, enjoys a brief love affair with a Gallic spy and spends a hideous time as a POW – and for some decades beyond, observing his return to civilian life, a disappointing vacation, a nervous breakdown. In unvarnished prose, and in less than eighty pages, we track the majority of this man’s life, seeing Geoffrey almost to old age and to the moment when he wakes one morning with a new sense of purpose, having found ‘with joy and resignation that he was not the same’.
Four more such biographical sketches follow, written (though two are presented in the first person) largely in the same aloof and colourless style. These are the stories of Billy, a Victorian workhouse boy who, upon his release from the institution, becomes a successful landlord and entrepreneur; Elena, a scientist who