I’m a newcomer to the works of Elizabeth Speller, yet the freshest press release and the visible growing web presence quickly assure me that I have a gifted author’s potential magnum opus in my sights. At Break of Day, the latest novel by Speller (her previous works including the appraised The Return of Captain John Emmett, once a Richard & Judy special) is a devastating tale of the life-altering impacts that war can inflict upon its beckoned soldiers.
One will quickly recognise that At Break of Day doesn’t quite resemble the many traditional takes on the semi-fictional War concept when it comes to modern literature. Before delving too far into its turns of narrative it becomes noticeable that a structure of the unconventional kind is at play here: arguably as the story revolves around the developments of four servicemen and their separate encounters there was bound to be pressure on Speller to arrange its contents in a manner that allowed each to flow simultaneously, and without ever cluttering the feast for its reader. We have, then, a layout that predominantly spends its time switching back and forth from one lead to another, utilising the break of chapter to split the focus.
This not only makes for more digestible reading, but grants each story time to properly work its way to the next end. Yet with such methods of organisation comes a minor problem: once the book settles into its stride and the chapters grow in length to accommodate more colossal events, it’s easy to misplace precisely where you last dropped off by the time you’re returned to a past story. While yes it means the casual scrolling back for reference is required, it’s a small feat to pay for the ride it provides.
Readers can expect to be pushed to the cliff’s edge and snatched back again on more than a few occasions with At Break of Day, a thrill that owes so much to Speller’s fluid and gripping storytelling. But whilst so graphic, nothing ever feels sugar-coated or verbose. One advantage that the setting of war provides for Speller is the lack of necessity to dress any fictional part of the plot too thickly. The First World War being an event that actually took place and consumed the high volume of human lives echoed in the book is enough of a prerequisite for extraordinary plot-building alone.
Speller is prone, however, to injecting a number of creative moments into the mix, especially throughout the majority of the 25th chapter where, after a few small exchanges earlier in the book, all of our four lead’s lives finally cross through just one story. More than that, this particular intersection could be seen to merely represent the telling of a much bigger point-of-view: that no matter the nationality, the age or the profession, every soldier – every man – is in it together, battling the very same fear and darkness that comes with the overwhelming reality of war.
At Break of Day is a powerful and absorbing read and flourishes in its will to tell the story from the introspective standpoint of its characters, smartly neglecting politics and the bigger picture for the more often overlooked tragedies of self-deprecation and personal trauma.