Service, Love, Death and Renewal

Review: LONG WAY HOME by Dan Jarvis, published by Little, Brown

ISBN: Hardback – 978 1 4087 1072 2

I know that in the past I have reviewed George MacDonald-Fraser’s excellent QUARTERED SAFE OUT HERE, which was his memoir of his experiences during the Second World War and the Burma campaign. But just now I cannot think of another book I’ve reviewed which was an autobiography. 

There are good reasons for this. I generally find autobiographies tedious, boring and dishonest. Such books tend to be written by famous people who are attempting to justify their actions. Sometimes, it’s true, they are about people who have endured appalling experiences, but all too often those are ghost-written. And besides, I don’t want to read misery memoirs (not my phrase – that’s an internal publishing description, I was told by a publishing sales rep).

I particularly do not want to read a misery memoir during this lockdown period. Time is too short.

However, I have a policy of not turning down polite requests from publishers when they ask me to review books. And LONG WAY HOME came to me from a very kind marketing woman at the publisher, who asked me whether I would like to read this one. As she said, the author would have been out and about, attending festivals and other events to promote the book, and it would have got a wide readership – but with everyone locked indoors, no festivals, and all bookshops closed, they were finding it really hard to get any traction. 

Yes, I said, I would be happy to take a look at it – I would not give it a negative review because it is my policy to give only positive reviews. Why? If I hate a book, that doesn’t mean it won’t be loved by millions. Take 50 SHADES – I found them utterly unreadable, and more an inspiration towards chastity than titillation. Or the DA VINCI CODE – I tried to read that, I really did, to understand why that specific conspiracy theory from THE HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL had achieved so much. I thought both books utter twaddle. Or … but you see my point. 

The thing is, books which I detest are still adored by millions, so I can serve no useful purpose by being unkind. And the authors did work hard to write them. So books on my review site here are only the books I really loved. I won’t review books I hate. That doesn’t mean I lie about them; I just won’t put a review up.

The marketing woman was happy with that, and sent me a PDF of the book. So I had to get back to her and explain that I don’t have a Kindle, and cannot read on the screen. I only review books if I receive a hard copy – proof or the publication version. And a few days later this book arrived.

What did I think on looking at it? On the cover was a photo of Dan Jarvis in military costume, probably in Afghanistan, with mountains, helicopters and military 4x4s in the background. A good cover, but on seeing it, my first thoughts were, “Oh, God, another ex-military Member of Parliament trying to show how he’s an interesting past.” So often you see this kind of cover from ex-special forces guys, or from MPs trying to big up some (usually minor) experience outside politics. Basically, my first impression was a sigh. But I had said I would give it a go. Reluctantly I opened it.

The inner cover had a good beginning: “Dan Jarvis is an MP and a Mayor, but this is not a book about politics. It is about service and family – specifically his time as an officer in the elite Parachute Regiment, and the untimely death of his wife Caroline.”

And I was intrigued. I vaguely remembered hearing about an MP who had been in the army and who had lost his wife, but still, it rankles to think that anyone would use his wife’s illness as a means to promote his political prospects. Yes, I’m a cynic.

But I was won over. This is a book that deserves to be read by cynics like me, people who are suspicious about any or every politician. It’s the story of a real guy, a man who decided to try to serve his country (although let’s be honest, he’s also a driven character who was determined to get into politics after his military career). But he wasn’t a part-time warrior, this guy spent time in Kosovo, in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served as ADC to General Jackson – not the easiest man to support – and had a good record, by all accounts. 

This is not really just a story about his time in the army. Yes, a good half or two thirds is spent talking about his time in the military, but the majority of the direction of the book is his marriage. He met his wife in 2000, fell in love, and was soon married. With two children and a good career, they were both very happy, until the appearance of cancer in 2006. Although at first it seemed she would pull through, she died in 2010. This book is the story of their battles, their love, and the ways he formed in order to cope with the absolute despair as she succumbed. 

It is a tender book, a lovely book. And all the more poignant because it was written by him as a memoir. He clearly adored Caroline, and was distraught at her death. Some of the most touching aspects are when he talks about his children, trying to cope with raising them as a single parent – hardly a job most soldiers would be ready for. Touching, yes, but also it shows the core of strength and determination within the man. 

Would I recommend this book?

You will guess, from my initial comments, that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I read half of it last night in one sitting. And thinking about George MacDonald Fraser at the same time, I was struck with similarities and differences. 

Fraser’s book was much more about a single military campaign. He did not talk about family and children: his was purely a memoir of his recollections of a vicious war against an implacable enemy whom he, and his comrades, despised. They had seen the appalling cruelty meted out to their comrades and civilians, and even many years after the war, he would not consider buying a Japanese made TV or car. 

Jarvis’s book is much more nuanced. He was, after all, a much more senior serving officer than Fraser. He talks more about the loneliness of command, about the importance of tactical and strategic planning – and here, I did get a whiff of a new MP distancing himself from past, foolish decisions, but his points are valid and well-made, if a little repetitive – and the importance of team spirit and how to lead. 

I would not hesitate to recommend this book. Not because Jarvis is now an MP, and not because it works very well as a war-memoir – he never describes a battle, for example – but because this is a very human story about love, death and renewal. For those aspects, this should be read by everyone.

Very highly recommended.

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