Fierce Imaginings

by Rachel Mann, DLT, £12.99

Rachel Mann’s grandfather, Sam, owned a brown leather wallet, as “masculine as a shaving brush”. Mann would love the artefact to lead her back into memory but, with so little to go on, she worries that it is a “doomed task”. Then there’s the photo of Aunty Betty, taken in the early 1920s. Again, can Mann get close to the thoughts of such people and the lives they led?

All I know for sure is that Mann does great honour to her forebears by exploring what she can of their lives – above all, the devastating war that defined them and their generation.

Mann takes the Great War seriously because it was a family affair, a “cultural inheritance”, and also because it shaped a nation and still “sets out for many the very texture of loss”. She defines her book as “an extended meditation on ‘identity’ and the symbols and rituals we use to shape it”.

The breadth of Mann’s analysis is impressive: she ranges from concepts of masculinity to how the Church of England acquitted itself during the conflict, and there are some interesting words on how religious belief was affected by an era of such loss and devastation. She suspects that the war may have sounded the “death knell for some patriarchal, imperialistic conceptions of God”, but that, on some levels, concepts of the divine only became more important during such turmoil.

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