Simon Raven James Kennaway - Essay

James Kennaway

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If] you can plough through the first 130 pages [of The Feathers of Death], most of which are irrelevant, you will then be drawn into Mr. Raven's horrible world. As you lay down his book, you will bow in admiration to the clarity of his characterisation, the simplicity of his prose and the design of his plot. I greatly fear that he is a writer with a future, and I only hope I can discourage him.

His story is of a homosexual love affair (here we go again) between a god-like subaltern and an earth-child drummer. It is set against a background of peace-time soldiering in a troublesome colony where the regiment (which is neither cavalry nor infantry) is involved in some wog-suppression. It reaches an excellent climax in a sharp action against the natives, and the description of this battle … is masterly. There is no question at all that Mr Raven knows all the details of this sort of action and of other aspects of peace-time soldiering. There is also no question at all that he manages to present us with a totally false picture of British officers and men. A spell in the army and a spell in the classical sixth have produced not, as we might hope, a certain maturity of view, but an ugly case of astigmatism….

Dismissing all the intolerable and repetitive table-talk (and looking back on his first novel it is this stuff, not the sodomy, that will, I hope, turn Mr Raven into a pillar of salt), I'd take issue with him on the behaviour of his troops….

During the court-martial of Alastair Lynch, which forms the last section of the book, there are more brilliant moments, and at one point the hero almost changes from young god to young man. We can nearly put a face to him. It is more the pity, therefore, that Mr. Raven undoes his good in the last few pages by a single act (in itself too melodramatic for any heterosexual story) which serves to make his hero god again. It is his novel that he stabs in the back.

James Kennaway, "Old Harrovian," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVII. No. 1455, January 31, 1959, p. 164.