The Conscripts (1968) is an early novel from action-adventure writer Walter Winward. The novel follows a half dozen boys as they join the British National Service. The boys come from a variety of backgrounds - including a blue-blooded student, a genial farmer, a sociopathic bouncer and even a Jewish kid from East London.
Winward punctuates the book thoroughly with flashbacks, but the main action is sequential. The reader follows the young men through their training, then through their service in Cyprus and Egypt. Although they're only signed up for two years, it seems like a lifetime. Winward does his best to capture their growth and development, but due to the length of the novel (short), the passage of time seems awfully choppy.
Like many other books and films about joining the military life, the training camp scenes are the most exciting. While in camp, their problems are tough, but understandable. It doesn't take a particularly skilled writer to convey the pain of marching for dozens of miles in the heat - or having to wash out a massive kitchen on a Sunday morning - or getting caught after curfew. These are human miseries and very easy for the reader to understand. The boys are also fresh from the 'outside' world at this point - the reader is still connected with their background and has no choice but to cheer for them.
By the time they ship out to Cyprus, however, they're something different - and the book changes as well. Winward tries to bring the politics down to a manageable size, but ultimately, the reader is a little lost (especially 40+ years later). The erratic timeline doesn't help as well, nor does the introduction of new characters. The boys have shed their pasts, making them less differentiated (and interesting). Winward sometimes glosses over the action (frustrating) and other times dwells on it (also frustrating), with no easy balance.
Still, ostensibly, this isn't even a book about action, or politics or soldiers - it is about SEX (in case the cover wasn't a hint). With, for the most part, women. Each young man in the squad is identified by his sexual proclivities (or lack thereof). It is their reason for being, and, depressingly, the shagging gets old pretty quickly. Whether under fire, in the brig, at the pub, at home, asleep, awake, in a tank... everything revolves around some aspect of their sex lives. I'm sure that being stuck in Cyprus with only the same two prostitutes gets boring after a little while for the soldiers, but it gets boring even more rapidly for the reader.
The story is already fragmented enough - chronologically, action vs character development, camp vs combat, a half-dozen protagonists. By adding a further layer - is this about sex or slaughter? - Winward broadens the ambitious scope of The Conscripts even further. As a collection of short stories, The Conscripts could be brilliant. As a novel, it shows flashes of insight, but only when they're not eclipsed by the whirlwind of plot fragments.
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