The Single Soldier by George Costigan – Review
By Nigel Armitage
Best known for his roles in acclaimed productions like Rita, Sue and Bob Too (“I thought I were great!”) and Happy Valley, George Costigan has now written a remarkable debut novel. Set in a rural village in France during the Second World War, The Single Soldier explores the devastating physical and emotional impact of the war on the village’s inhabitants.
Although tiny and remote – “a bar, three shops, the post-office, the church” – St. Cirgues is not spared war’s capability to tear at the fabric of a community. But this is not a novel about the heroics of plucky villagers against an all-powerful invader. Rather, it is the story of a community at war with itself, of conflicted individuals readily sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
Jacques works the land of his forebears. Lives with his mother in a farmstead built by his grandfather. Sups at the local bar with his friends occasionally. Attends at the church with his mother every Sunday. But war’s tendency to uproot and displace ushers into this hard-worn life of work and routine a young Paris émigré called Simone, changing Jacques’s landscape forever. “He was alone again – but oh so different from a whole minute before. From the day before, from all the days, all the weeks, all of the years of his life before. Suddenly he wanted the war to last forever.”
The story conveys wonderfully Jacques’s revelation of emotions and his journey from near silent veneration of Simone through to the expression and consummation of the depth of his love. But whereas Jacques is rooted in St. Cirgues, as much as one of the mighty oaks that line the fields, the necessity of war soon demands that Simone makes an escape to the safety of another country.
How Jacques goes about coping (or perhaps not coping) with the void in his life that Simone leaves behind forms the novel’s narrative core. Jacques is the ‘single soldier’ of the novel’s title and it is a battle waged both inside his head and with his own bare hands. Costigan details Jacques’s remorseless ‘war’ with a level of skill that belies his debut novelist status.
Sometime friend to Jacques and another central character is Jerome who is similarly engaged in a conflict of his own making. During the course of the story, he undergoes a very public journey from partisan through to social pariah. Another impressive strength of the novel is its exploration of how a community’s mores can exert pressure on an individual, acting as a kind of moral arbiter. In Jerome’s case, it is very much a case of him being his own worst enemy in his struggle against the unyielding forces of public opinion and taste.
Involving the abduction of millions of people from conquered territories, Nazi Germany’s policy of forced labour reached as far as the most isolated of rural villages. The novel describes in evocative terms one St. Cirgues’ villager’s experience of abduction to Germany to work in the German war machine and then his long journey home again. But the passing months and years mean that nothing – not even ‘home’ – remains the same and it is this bitter truth that forms another of the novel’s important themes.
The Single Soldier is ultimately a story of the obsessive, obdurate and conniving personalities that make up this French rural community. The writing overall has a certain enduring persistence; its significant triumph is to engage the reader throughout, in what might otherwise have been a chronicle of dull goings-on in a dull place.
Instead, the novel is illuminating of the desires, the passions, the jealousies, the pettiness, in fact the downright humanity of this community at war from both without its borders and from within. George Costigan may go on to write a second book – and I hope he does – but he already deserves, on the strength of this novel, renown as a writer as much as for his justly celebrated acting work.
‘The Single Soldier’ by George Costigan is published by Urbane, £8.99