Book Review: Theatre of War

Theatre of War, by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle) tells the story of an immigrant family living in South America whose lives are shadowed by the lingering effects of war. The story is narrated by Tamara, a young woman looking back at her childhood. During her early years she lived with her parents and two older siblings. When her mother and father separated she lived for periods of time with each of them. Her father appears to have suffered PTSD brought on by his own childhood experiences in the troubled Balkans. His shifting moods crater his young family, passing on lasting psychological problems to the next generation.

The story is structured as a sort of play in three acts, with each scene a memory conjured by the narrator. Characters play their parts – roles assigned by Tamara and viewed from her perspective. Thus we do not get to know the other cast members’ thoughts or feelings. They exist only in how they affected Tamara.

“We rewrite each other’s parts. We bring our characters to life.”

The story opens with the family moving house – something that happened repeatedly over several years. What possessions they acquired would be crudely packed, abandoned or sold – with little warning or explanation. There were regular periods of neglect and hunger. Tamara’s few positive memories revolve around her siblings, particularly her older sister.

The mother is remembered as screaming at the father, having an affair and then leaving. Rarely does she appear happy, making herself ill with medication until hospitalised. In one dark period she rejects Tamara entirely.

The two older siblings were born of a different father to their sister. This effects how the parents treat them at times but does not change how the three children regard each other.

The father suffers regular nightmares. In trying to protect Tamara from the causes, he instills curiosity but also a barrier to questions she feels she cannot ask. He recoils from blood, creating issues when his daughter menstruates. He comes across as doing his best for his family but with broken tools.

As the ‘play’ progresses we learn of Tamara’s sexual encounters and attempts at forging relationships. Her lack of anchor due to her troubled childhood results in drifting, avoidance, and then loss.

The tale is of Tamara and her experiences but also much more. Scenes portray her recollections but build into a powerful account of damage wrought by parents unable to provide what their child requires. As it is narrated by a grown daughter, there remain questions about reliability of memory – was a doll abandoned or sold, did the family members ever feel love or joy, what of the spaces and interactions that are not explored. Words are spoken and parts played but from Tamara’s point of view this was never enough.

“Someone hugs my neck, kisses my toes, pokes me in the abdomen. We look distractedly past one another, engrossed in our own roles.”

The writing is visceral and succinct, the tale dark and raw but told in language that is affectingly evocative. It offers a piercing reminder that the damage caused by war is not confined to immediacy or direct aftermath, and that family conflict can also destroy.

An abiding story that had me pondering how many of our relationships are acted out, and how much we can ever know of the impact we have on others – including those we love. A recommended read.

Theatre of War is published by Charco Press.

A Reason to Write – Guest Post by Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

For my stop on the Wicked Game blog tour I am hosting a guest post from the author, Matt Johnson. I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to publish this powerful and moving piece.  

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I’ve spoken many times on how a form of therapy that included writing helped with my treatment for PTSD.

And I’ve explained that it was a comment made by my counsellor that first planted the idea in my mind that I might write a book.

What I’ve never explained is why I agreed with the suggestion to the degree that I was sufficiently motivated to write a book.

To explain, I need to take you back to 1985. I was a PC in those days, and had just passed the promotion examination to become a sergeant. I was posted to Tottenham and Hornsey police stations for a short period to work as an ‘acting sergeant’ while I waited to go on my pre-promotion course at Hendon police college.

On my first evening at Tottenham, a young black lad came running in from the street, screaming and shouting. He jumped over the front counter towards me and collapsed in a heap on the floor. I moved towards him and saw blood, a lot of blood spreading out on the floor around him. He had been stabbed and had run into the police station to escape his attacker. This was my first introduction to Tottenham in the 1980s.

I also spent some time at Hornsea Police station where I met a sergeant called David Pengelly. David gave me some tips about the job and about what to expect on my sergeants’ course. He introduced me to some of his community beat officers – we called them ‘homebeats’ in those days – including PCs Keith Blakelock and Richard Coombes.

I left Tottenham when my course started. As I did so, I was aware that trouble was brewing in the local area. Mobile car patrols had been stopped on certain estates and foot patrolling in those areas was only undertaken by well-known local PCs and, even then, they were always in pairs. There had been some sporadic outbreaks of hostility towards police officers and some vehicles had been damaged by stone-throwing youths. It seemed that the area was a powder keg just waiting to explode.

On 5th October 1985, the Broadwater Farm riots started. David Pengelly, the sergeant who had befriended me at Hornsey, was deployed with several of his homebeat officers into the fray. There were ill-prepared, inadequately equipped and completely unaware of what they were going into. That evening, in the darkness and confusion on an estate with which they were unfamiliar, they were stoned and petrol bombed and, eventually their position was over-run and they were isolated. They ran for their lives. Keith Blakelock slipped on wet grass, fell to the ground and was set upon by the rioters. He was killed, stabbed and hacked to death. Showing immense bravery and armed with ridiculously inadequate wooden truncheons, PC Coombes and others attempted to rescue PC Blakelock while Sergeant Pengelly fought alone with the rioters to try and buy some time for his colleagues.

David Pengelly was awarded the George Medal for his bravery that evening.

But there were many other police officers at Broadwater Farm that night. As with the officers from Hornsey, they were also ill-prepared for what they faced. Many were injured; all were traumatised.

Some of them were from Barnet police station, where I was posted on promotion. In the aftermath of the riot, an enquiry team was set up and all officers who had been present were told to write statements including as much information as they could about what had happened to them, what they had seen and any evidence they could include to help bring rioters to justice.

In many cases, the statements produced by the officers from my station were woefully inadequate. Often, they said no more than, ‘I went with my serial to an estate in Tottenham. We stood behind plastic shields while hundreds of people tried to kill us with petrol bombs, knives and rocks.’

I was given the job of obtaining better statements from these officers. It wasn’t easy. Many of them were resentful, angry and upset by what they had been through. Many simply didn’t want to talk about it, let alone write a statement.

I remember one particular PC – I’ll call him Andy. Andy was in his early twenties. In the months that followed the riot, Andy steadfastly refused to write a full statement. He was interviewed by senior officers and even threatened with disciplinary action, but nothing could persuade him. He was considered to be a bad egg, not a good police officer. He had started drinking, often to excess and was regularly late turning up for work. He seemed to have an ‘attitude problem’, was insubordinate to senior officers and surly. One day, he was arrested for drink-driving. He was disciplined and sacked. Nobody missed him.

I forgot about Andy until many years later. I was undergoing counselling for PTSD and I began to realise that young Andy, and many of the PCs who had been at Broadwater Farm had been displaying similar symptoms to my own. I hadn’t recognised it at the time; indeed, I had never heard of PTSD. Nothing was done for them by way of counselling or post-trauma care. They were simply left to fend for themselves.

It was too late to help Andy, but I was left thinking, ‘If only I had known, if only I had been aware, maybe I could have helped him’. I felt guilt, as I knew that I had failed him, as had the organisation I worked for, when we allowed his behaviour to deteriorate to the point where he was arrested and kicked out of the police.

I promised myself then that I would do my level best to make amends for my failure. So, when my counsellor suggested the idea of a book, it sparked an idea. An idea that one day I might write a book that could educate and inform people about PTSD and about how it affects people’s lives.

But I knew that as one individual former soldier and police inspector, I had neither the power nor the influence to bring about change, to ensure that all men and women in all the armed and emergency services are prepared for the trauma they will face and properly supported when they do. But, it occurred to me that what I might be able to do is introduce people who can influence change, to the realities of PTSD, through creative writing.

And so … I began to write. And Wicked Game was born.

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You may read my review of Wicked Game by clicking on the cover image below. Do check out the other stops on the tour.

WickedGame copy  Wicked Games Blog tour

Wicked Game is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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