Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller. He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer). Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.
But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad. This may be his best book.
It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents. It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.
What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real. Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war. The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches. It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.
It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.
And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator. MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.
It’s refreshing. Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book. My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it. Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.
This is refreshing. Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians. MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.
He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved. Find this one.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His latest book is Ice Station Death. You can check it out here.