Book Review: Despatches by Lee Murray
Author: Lee Murray
Publisher: Absinthe (PS Publishing)
Page Count: 73
Genre: Historical, cosmic horror, epistolary
Daily Star war correspondent Cassius Smythe is off to the Dardanelles to report on the Allied campaign. That is, if only the War Office will let him tell the truth. But after months in the trenches at Anzac Cove, Smythe learns that it isn’t just the Ottoman who wish to claim back the land, and the truth is as slippery as a serpent…
What if the events of Gallipoli in WWI weren’t all as they appeared? What if ancient, unknowable monsters—gods perhaps—vied and hunted for mens souls as much as the two opposing forces of Turks and Allies vied for ground? That is the premise of Lee Murray’s vivid epistolary novella, Despatches.
Set in the trenches of WWI, we mostly follow Cassius Smythe, a British journalist sent to Gallipoli to report on the Allied effort, as he recounts his experiences in his diary. Included in the mix are his letters to his family and articles to the press, many of which bear heavy censoring to ensure no vital information is leaked, and that the people back home remain oblivious to the true horrors of the campaign. And I say true horrors in every sense.
Thanks to the epistolary format of the story, the reader is given a first row seat to the graphic horror that is war. Death is not just on display here, it is death of all kinds—sudden, slow, terror-filled to a noted absence. From drowning to dire injury to being left out in the sun to bloat and rot, Murray does not shy away from the catastrophic loss and waste of life that was Gallipoli. Yet at the same time, Cassius’s diary entries are laced with a tenderness that offsets the deplorable situation he finds himself in. His interviews are gentle, curious, and he listens open minded to the stories of those whose lives intersect his own. And through their accounts he begins to piece together a darker, more terrifying picture of the campaign.
Throughout it all is a breathtaking attention to detail, from the lay of the land and strategies used to dig Gallipoli’s trenches to the historical events and happenings of the campaign. Despite being taught about the ANZACs and the events of Gallipoli multiple times over the course of my schooling years, this story is the first to have brought it to life so vividly—and memorably. Tragedy on the scale of Gallipoli is often difficult to grasp, but the combination of personal accounts and immersive prose bring it to the fore in exquisite and terrible detail. While Cassius may not mourn the death of every individual, there is a real sense of cumulative loss; a whole generation and its potential thrown into the WWI meat grinder.
This is a story that pulls you in and says, “Do not look away”. History already tells us the likely ending to Cassius’ story, and as the story progresses that foreboding grows. All the same, we can’t help but hope in the midst of the horror (perhaps as the forces of Gallipoli hoped) that he’ll make it home.
In all, Despatches is the kind of tale you absorb as much as read. It might be short, but it sits in your psyche for a long while afterwards. With an expert hand, Murry blends the cosmic with historic to remind us that war doesn’t just claim lives on the battlefield, it steals souls and swallows generations whole.
Desptaches will release in the UK at FantasyCon from 15-17 September.