The story of The Empty Greatcoat is based on the true experiences of Francis House, inspired by his notebooks and brought to life by his great great niece, Rebecca. F. John.
Francis joined the army when he was just fifteen and seven years later found himself in Gallipoli, on Anzac beach, a hellhole where he was traumatised by the sights, sounds and smells of war.
It is a remarkable story on several levels. First there is the historical research required to ensure accuracy. Even though John has her uncle’s notebooks as a reference point, it still needed further research. The narrative is interspersed at times with extracts from the notebooks making this story seem real and surreal at the same time.
Second, there is the remarkable way the writer has been sympathetic and empathic to the thoughts of Francis House. The story weaves in and out with the ghostly spectre of the empty greatcoat seeming to follow Francis and remind him of things from the past. At times the narrative is confusing swinging from past to future and then back to present experiences. It echoes how Francis must have felt, drugged with opium, due to his chest problems, and no doubt suffering from PTSD.
However, the most remarkable thing about The Empty Greatcoat is the use of language. The writing is superb, lyrical and evocative. The reader is transported to the beach at Gallipoli where it is “raining pig iron” and where, at night, when “a slip of cloud wreathes the moon” the eerie spectre of the empty greatcoat appears.
The horrors of battle are not romanticised in this novel. The stench, the noise, the bodies and minds ripped apart by the traumas seen and endured are not glossed over. The reader can visualise the “private discharging his blood like a breadcrumb trail” and imagine how Francis would feel at that sight. Members of the troop are sketched skilfully in a few words and death walks with them.
Throughout the sea plays a part. It is a reminder of his previous life and his sister, Lily. The freedom afforded by swimming in the sea which is “the dense grey-green of a toad,” contrasts strongly with the heat, and then cold, of life in Gallipoli as do the stories about Lily which Francis tells his men.
This is a novel which will provide more with each re-reading, uncovering the many layers. Someone has already suggested it for the Wales book of the year. It is certainly a strong contender. It is the first novel published by the newly formed Aderyn Press and Rebecca F. John’s fourth publication. A superb start for the new press.