Fierce Imaginings by Rachel Mann
It is rare in my experience that a book lives up to its tantalising title. Rachel Mann begins by inveigling us in by telling us ‘This is a book about ghosts.’ These are not ‘ghouls’ or figures of fantasy but ‘spectres raised by the Great War’ who ‘continue to exercise an influence and power over us.’ These ‘spectres’ are in the first place personal ones for the author; relatives, notably grandparents, parents ,family and herself. But profoundly it is ‘a search of the human’, as Rowan Williams observes in his introduction.
The structure of the book is simple, yet profound. In something of the spirit of Alan Bennet’s The History Boys Rachel Mann warns of ‘How public monuments make it easier to forget.’ More challengingly, she asks: ‘Did the Great War leave God ‘Hanging on the old barbed wire…?’ This chapter courageously faces the behaviour of the Church of England as the State Religion ‘caught up in interests often tangential to serving men.’ ‘Who is God, then, which emerges out of broken myth?’ Mann enquires. It serves as a powerful question now, as then.
The Battle of the Somme deeply impacted upon the author’s family, and she reflects upon it with a question and a unique memorial. The question: ‘What exactly was ‘lost’ in the catastrophe of the Somme?’ The memorial: a street of terraced houses in Trafford Road, Stretford in Manchester. These, constructed after the war bear the sixty names of men from those streets killed at the Somme.
Further questions: ‘Who and What are worthy of remembrance?’ ‘How ‘The Land’ holds the memory of war’, are coupled with reflections on ‘shell shock’ and masculinity, the ‘feminist’ aspect of war – and ‘Poppies, Silence and the Broken Word.’ No review can adequately serve the poetry, imagination, and challenge of this book. For me a reflection on Christian liturgy near the middle of the book, sums up its message. ‘To use God is to kill him’, said Meister Eckhart, and concludes Mann: ‘When we put God to our ends and uses…..what we are left with is not God, but an idol or simulacrum shaped in our own image.’ I’m already reading it again..and again.
Reviewed by Rt Rev Peter B Price
Published by Darton, Longman and Todd, Fierce Imaginings is just £11.50 until 31st May 2017 (RRP £12.99) and POST FREE from the shop, or £9 from our online shop + £2.50 postage.