Every once in a while I will read a book that infects my mind long after I’ve finished it. The War Zone By Alexander Stuart, a narrative of a young boy coping with the emotional destruction of his world, haunts and calls to me. I find it hard to ignore.
Despite the storied 20 year history of both the novel and subsequent movie, I was ignorant of its existence. By happenstance, I came across the author’s twitter account. Stuart’s amiable demeanor online proves a contrast to the dark and uncompromising world of The War Zone.
And quite a history The War Zone has; the novel was stripped of the Whitbread Prize (now the Costa book awards.) An event that Stuart himself credits as far more helpful in promotion of his book than perhaps just receiving the award itself. Script adaptations of The War Zone by Stuart number in the tens, and it seemed a successful film adaptation would remain in “development hell” for all eternity. Here in Part 1, I will focus on the novel.
The War Zone is a dark, unwavering narrative filled with elegant prose. A book oft touted as about incest and abuse, was to me, a deep and layered texture about middle-class suburban despondence. The true disconnectedness and alienation that is male adolescence (I’ve been there!) is compounded by a world spiraling out of control. As a reader, the comfort of familiarity is ripped away as an impending sense of dread and uneasiness builds. To be inside the head of a young boy, Tom, surprisingly evoked more pity than sympathy. All of Tom’s innocence, his childhood, become forever stained by the knowledge of his father’s sexual abuse of his sister Jessica. As I read, my mind stiffened. I braced for impending impact, almost certain of its trajectory. And suddenly, what I knew, was not what I knew. Tom’s fear and his inability to change the outcome of even his own life paralyzes the reader.
The bleak and muted English countryside enraptured me. Even though I’ve never been to the United Kingdom, Stuart conjures a middle class moroseness that I’m all too familiar with here in the States. I enjoyed the subtle, stifled elements of the world. There is a realness and depth that is unnerving. As a result, I have very little want to ever visit the Devon countryside.
In literature and film, victims of sexual abuse are too often painted as helpless and subdued, call it the “lifetime movie effect.” Here, Jessica presents as a strong character, and even appears to instigate sexual encounters with her father. While it is clear Jessica is the victim of sexual abuse, The War Zone paints in shades of grey. In an unflinchingly real look at sexual abuse, the reader is left with a conflicted view of the ‘relationship’ – Does Jessica truly believe she is having sex with her father of her own volition? Or is she so emotionally damaged that her only way to cope with this terrible abuse is to somehow to claim it as her own?
As I read, I was reminded of my first read of Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange. A book in which the most utterly taboo things were explored in an equally unflinching light. As a younger reader I was shocked and delighted at the shifts and turns it offered. Like The War Zone; Clockwork haunted me long after I set it down.
For me, this was a deeply personal book. Some may ask “how could you enjoy something with such a horrid subject matter?” I’m not sure I have an exact answer to that. There is nothing ‘feel good’ about it. And yet, I found it captivating and meaningful. The War Zone has found a permanent place on my bookshelf.
(Merrel Note 6/12/2009 : I posted this review to twitter. I was delighted and surprised by the response from the author himself. “@UncompletedWork Wow! That’s an amazing review of my book. Thank you so much. I really feel that you *get* every element of it…” If this wasn’t humbling enough, he re-tweeted my review to share with his other followers.)
The Future of The War Zone
This fall will see the re-issue of the 20th Anniversary edition of The War Zone. The fate of the film is a little less clear. The North American distributor of the film, New Yorker Films, recently shuttered its doors. DVD’s are currently being price gouged on Amazon and other sites for as much as $60. It is unknown whether a new distributor will re-release the film. Luckily, Netflix does have the DVD and it is available for streaming.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Stepping into ‘The War Zone’ where I take a look at the Stuart adapted, and Tim Roth directed film.