The novels of Paul Watkins

By Paul Watkins Published by Faber

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For more than two decades, the American author Paul Watkins has been producing tautly-written, exciting novels featuring realistically-portrayed characters in a wide variety of settings. Yet it’s hard not to feel that he has never quite achieved the readership he deserves.

His first novel, Night Over Day Over Night, is written from the perpective of a young German soldier in the First World War; his next, Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn, won the Encore Prize for Best Second Novel and is set in the harsh world of a New England fishing community. In the Blue Light of African Dreams is another First World War adventure, but the action takes place primarily in northern Africa. Flying with the Lafayette squadron over France in 1918, Charlie Halifax is shot down and wounded. When he is well enough, he attempts to escape to America but is captured and forced to join the Foreign Legion. In the ferocious heat and numbing tedium of the desert, he befriends a Russian called Ivan; they make plans to leave Africa and attempt to win the Orteig Prize by completing the first non-stop powered flight across the Atlantic.

Allan Massie has compared Watkins to Hemingway and St.-Exupery. His stories have a Boy’s Own quality to them, but the simplicity of his writing is enhanced by a remarkable ability to produce descriptive phrases of startling originality and beauty. He also writes clipped, crackling dialogue. His protagonists find themselves embroiled in external and, at times, large-scale conflicts, which often reflect an inner, personal unease.

While themes of conflict remain a staple of his plots, the settings of Watkins’ other novels are diverse: environmental conflict in a Maine logging town (Archangel), the war between the newly-formed IRA and the Black and Tans in 1920s Ireland (The Promise of Light), Russian-occupied Afghanistan (The Story of My Disappearance), and, perhaps most extraordinarily, the Viking world (Thunder God).

Watkins’ later novels are based either during or after the Second World War. The Ice Soldier is set high in the Alps, and The Forger is about an American in Paris, painting fakes of valuable works of art to prevent the originals from falling into the hands of the German military. The Forger is typical of Watkins’ work: compelling, stark, unsentimental and edgy. It’s time he received the recognition afforded other more formulaic writers.

Reviewed by James Smith, Booktrust website editor

Bibliography Night Over Day Over Night Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn In the Blue Light of African Dreams The Promise of Light Stand Before Your God (autobiography of his school days at Eton) Archangel The Story of My Disappearance The Forger Thunder God The Ice Soldier