Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to the protagonist of Robert Allison’s Homeric novel, The Letter Bearer, is that he wasn’t killed outright when he rode over a mine somewhere in the Libyan desert. Death is everywhere in this tale. The rider’s wounds might kill him. If they don’t, then the Afrika Korps, the Italians, or the Senussi might get him. If he manages to evade the Axis or the locals, the desert has a good chance of killing him through heat and dehydration.
In hypnotic prose, things go from bad to worse to abysmal for our protagonist. As soon as he regains consciousness, the rider (so-called because he was riding a motorcycle when it hit that mine) is discovered by a couple of Afrika Korps soldiers. One of them steals his dog tags as a good luck charm and the other takes his watch. We only learn later how our protagonist lost the insignia on his uniform. The rider lost his memory in the explosion and now he has no chance of learning who he is unless he has the extraordinary luck of being found by someone who knows who he is.
After being left for dead by the Germans, the rider is found again—this time by a small group of British deserters. One of them who has a bit of medical knowledge patches him up, removing the shrapnel buried in his ribs. But all is not well. The deserters are not about to take the rider back to the British Army. These guys are on the run from everyone. All they want is to find somewhere relatively safe and well enough supplied to see out the war.
The rider faces physical challenges as he heals, mental challenges as he struggles to recover his memory, and emotional as he works his way through the sack of mail he had with him since the mine explosion. He has a vague hope that he might be the author of one of the letters and that reading them might trigger his memory. He reads these letters so often while trying to force his memory that he begins to imagine himself meeting the wife of one of the letter writers.
The Letter Bearer follows the rider through his long Odyssey. He faces hardship after hardship, dreadful bad lucky, language barriers, and more as he tries to find his way back. It’s hard to pin down details of when and where this book takes place other than it’s somewhere in the middle of the North African Campaign in Libya. Some readers may be annoyed at the vagueness, but I think it was incredibly effective at creating the experience of a man who finds himself defenseless in the middle of a war zone. It also helps capture the chaos of war from a soldier’s point of view, who only wants to survive and doesn’t know the big picture. This is an intriguing, original war novel.