Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2019

Bodies of Men (2019), by Nigel Featherstone

Sometimes, publishers seem to do their authors no favours at all.  I’m going to start this review by copying what I wrote in a comment on Sue’s review of this book at Whispering Gums:

Well, well, this review just shows me how deceptive publicity blurbs can be. I’ll copy it to here if you don’t mind, just to show you how I reacted against this book and thought I would never want to read it:
“Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate.
William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers.
Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined”.
This screed with its war story scenario and its “secrets”. “risking it all” and “dangerous territory” gives no hint of any of what you’ve written about. I feel as if I ought to apologise to the author for dismissing his book out of hand, but I think it’s really not my fault!

(The cover is a misleading cliché too.  It suggests the devastation of wartime Europe, rather than the middle eastern desert where the action takes place).

Blurbs gushing about ‘secrets’ are usually referring to much more banal matters than the dark side of war: pacifism; same-sex relationships, war crimes by your own side, and desertion.  Based on that deceptive blurb I had made assumptions about Bodies of Men that turned out to be wrong. So I’m grateful to Sue for her review, and I urge you to read it.

So, what is the book about?  First and foremost, it’s the love story of two soldiers, beginning with the tender affection of young people who do not really know what it might mean.  But it’s more than that because the novel explores what masculinity is, in a scenario that begins by testing bravery under fire on the battlefield but moves on to testing courage in different ways.

William Marsh (at least initially) follows the script laid down by his bombastic father.  His family is North Shore Sydney; his father is an MP; and William has been brought up to be part of a military tradition. And James Kelly also follows the script laid down by his socialist, pacifist widowed mother, keeping aloof from the rush to enlist, at least in the beginning.  It is the cowardly behaviour of other people that makes him decide to enlist after all.

These two, who were unlikely childhood friends until William’s father detected an affection of which he disapproved, meet up again by chance in combat in the Egyptian desert in 1941.  There is a reversal of the expected roles when William hesitates to fire his gun with disastrous consequences, and James fires to prevent catastrophe.

For reasons William can only guess at, (because he’s not sure how much his superiors know about what actually happened) this episode results in him being sent away from the action to set up a training camp which guards stores in the desert.  He suspects that his failure has been noticed, and is keen to redeem himself.  He buys into the idea of military leadership and despite being younger than some of the men he commands, he runs a taut operation.  Except that it seems pointless.  It certainly doesn’t offer the kind of heroic opportunity that he craves in order to silence his father’s voice in his head.

But he’s also intrigued by a covert instruction to keep an eye out for a soldier who’s gone AWOL, with the implication, of course, that being AWOL turns into desertion if it goes on too long.  The army can turn a blind eye to its young men having a bit of unauthorised freedom, but only up to a point.  Desertion, in time of war, is subject to capital punishment.

Since the blurb foreshadows it, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that James and William meet up together and their relationship blossoms.  William is recovering from an accident in a home which needs to keep under the radar too; all kinds of people fled Europe at this time, and before the Middle East erupted into warfare as well, Egypt was a refuge of sorts for those who wanted to keep their identities hidden.

All is well and good for a brief idyll (and no one thinks much about the future) but then the tension ramps up.  As you’d expect, James wants to be out and about as his recovery progresses,  William wants to be with him, his CO is suspicious, and the military police are cracking down in their search for soldiers who are AWOL or deserting.  And William also makes a disconcerting discovery about the reasons why he was sidelined to a place of relative safety at the depot.

As with other books that I’ve read about war, Bodies of Men is a reminder that so many of the personnel making up great armies are young people, who should have all their lives ahead of them.

Nigel Featherstone is also the author of Remnants (2005); Fall on Me (2011);  I’m Ready Now (2012); and The Beach Volcano (2014).  I’ll keep an eye out for these at my library!

Noah Riseman also reviewed Bodies of Men at Honest History. There are a couple of plot points which I’ve chosen not to reveal but the review places the work in its historical context, making the point that historical fiction can make up for a lack of first-hand accounts about same-sex relationships in the military.

Author: Nigel Featherstone
Title: Bodies of Men
Publisher: Hachette, 2019, 324 pages
ISBN: 9780733640704
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Bodies of Men



  1. Do you think Featherstone adds anything to our understanding of the war in this work of historical fiction? I know you say it’s not a war book in the conventional sense, but we already have so many contemporary accounts – including Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass (which I have owned for many years without reading but I understand it at least partially covers his service in North Africa in the English army).


  2. Good question Bill. I felt it expanded my understanding… In several ways in fact… But that could be because of what I’ve read to date. This is quite an interior book about what the two soldiers feel and worry about, for a start.

    BTW I’ve had Flaws in the glass for years. I keep dipping into it and each time I tell myself I must sit down and read it all.

    Thanks for the link Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bill, your question mirrors what I was thinking before I read Sue’s review. I have had a surfeit of war over the four years of the centenary of WW1 and wasn’t tempted by yet another one.
    But it isn’t ‘yet another one’. It’s more like Wendy Scarfe’s The Day They Shot Edward ( in that it resists all the usual tropes and shows us a side of our war history that is all but swamped in popular histories.
    Flaws in the Glass? Ditto, Sue!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How could the publishers have gone so much astray with that cover image and the blurb?


    • I don’t know, Karen, it baffles me.
      I’m sure they know more about what sells than I do, but it seems a shame to misrepresent a book like this. I mean, everything they say in ‘true’ about the book, but it’s so much more than that…


  5. This happens all too often, incorrectly conveying themes in a blurb and misrepresenting the story with an unrelated cover image.


  6. […] of Queensland Fiction Book Award – $15,000 • Bodies of Men (Hachette) by Nigel Featherstone, see my review • Too Much Lip (UQP) by Melissa Lucashenko, see my review • Shell (Scribner) by Kristina […]


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  11. […] has until fairly recently has been meagre in literature.  Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men directly tackles the myth that there are no gays in the ANZAC […]


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