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  • Writer's pictureIan Ayris

THE POSTER by James Marshall - a review

The Blurb

Seemingly abandoned by their parents, siblings Lena and Alek are caught up at different ends of a war - while Lena designs propaganda posters in Plymouth, Alek is forced into the army. Both dream of escape, of another life . . . but as the war continues and they find each other, they question whom they can trust.

When survival is everything, is everyone an enemy?

The Opening

Alek Wasilewski hurdled the yellow gorse bush and sprinted towards the cover of a low stone wall. The enemy was dug in on the edge of a copse seventy-five metres ahead. Alek pushed his heavy helmet back up over his sweaty forehead, his chest heaving as he tried to regain his breath. His section commander, Swales, was signalling to the rest of the boys to catch up.

‘Get a fucking move on,’ Swales said.

Alek wiped his palms on his combat trousers. His neck ached from the rifle sling and helmet strap, his calves were burning from his too-tight combat boots, and he needed to pee.

Swales made several hand signals to accompany his instructions to the section. ‘We’ll have to go around to the left following the stone wall.’ He pointed at Murdo and Trowbridge. ‘You two stay here and lay down covering fire. The rest of you, follow me.’

Alek gripped his empty rifle and bent as low as he could to follow Swales, keeping his head below the wall. His knees groaned after thirty metres and screamed after sixty. He sighed when Swales held up his fist to signal a stop.

‘Hold it here.’ Swales dropped to his stomach.

Alek copied Swales and wriggled forward, thankful that his legs could rest.

‘Check ammo; fix bayonets,’ Swales said. ‘Ski and I will take the left trench. Evans and Williams, the middle trench, and you two –’ Swales pointed at the last members of the section – take the right-hand trench.’

Alek pretended to check his ammo and fix his bayonet. They had neither ammo nor bayonets but had to go through the motions.

‘Ready?’ Swales said.

Alek nodded.

The Review

Since the war - a conflict between England and the Continentals (Europe) - Cornwall is now known as Kernow and is no longer a part of England. Lena and Alek’s parents moved to Kernow before the border closed and Lena, particularly, is desperate to reunite with them. She is stuck, however, illustrating propaganda posters for the government - referred to ominously as The Party - and three weeks before the novel begins Alek has been press ganged into the army. Alek’s views on his parents relocation to Kernow are a little more unforgiving than his sisters, viewing their move as one of abandonment rather than pragmatism. With Lena becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her role in assisting a despotic regime and the military life of Alek where obeying orders from your superiors is the only thing that matters, the inevitable drifting apart of the siblings looks set.

The book is structured with alternate chapters for Lena and Alek. This works brilliantly in giving the reader the lived experience of each. The reader is with Alek on the battlefield fighting for his life and then with Lena illustrating her propaganda posters and surviving on increasingly slim rations due to her plummeting Social Credit (a number indicating your value to the state based on trust and loyalty and willingness to follow the Party line). When Lena finds out one of her posters could possibly have led to the loss of life of a number of people trying to escape to Kernow, she begins to sense the true nature of her role - and wants out. She desperately wants Alek to join her but she doesn’t even know where he is. Then she meets Rob. And the mysterious ladies of The Townswomen’s Guild. In the meantime, Alek desperately wants to know his big sister is okay. He misses her dearly. He only wants her to be safe. But when he is sent on a special mission that takes him closer to her than he ever expected, he sees this war - like all wars - leaves no-one unchanged.

The quality of writing in The Poster is excellent. The Alek chapters are stunning. The battlefield scenes are up there with some of the best I’ve read. The thumping pace, the terseness of the prose, the brutality and the bleakness all contribute to a truly visceral read. The Lena chapters are no less effective, just from the other side of the looking glass, if you like. Lena too is in the thick of battle, a battle where the casualties are trust and friendship, self-worth and love, and what it means to be human.

One definition of dystopian is ‘an imagined world of society in which people lead wretched, dehumanised, fearful lives’. This a description of the lives of both Alek and Lena. And when these lives inevitably hurtle to their pulsating conclusion, the reader is left breathless yet thankful the world of The Poster is not quite our reality, yet.

But aware it could be just a heartbeat away.

The Poster is a truly excellent debut novel, and is available on Kindle and paperback here:

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1 Comment

James Marshall
James Marshall
Feb 19

Thanks so much for this, Ian. Your tutoring on the Pen to Print Creative Writing Classes helped me in so many different ways.

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