Book Review

The Triple Echo by H. E. Bates

a surprisingly great short novel that might be hateful

cw: sexual assault, transphobia, abuse

I had a productive day today. Productive by “lockdown coronavirus standards” rather than normal ones, but productive all the same.

I’m typing this on the evening of March 24th, and I’m still employed. I have a finite amount of work to do, which I’m on top of. I made a big dent today into the project I have three days to finish, and once that’s done I have no expectation of any more work until the city and the world is reborn. Uh oh.

I did my work, briefly went outside TWICE (which isn’t illegal here like in the UK, though both times I wore a mask because I’m not a dick) and though I didn’t bake any bread, I did think about making a shopping list and also had some sex (I live with my lover (and our dog) so it’s not breaking any social distancing rules). I wouldn’t ordinarily type about actual sex on here because it’s crass, but I’ve been incredibly anxious for the last week or so and was becoming near demi-vierge with the combination of COVID fears and the promised diminishment of libido that these new, stronger, drugs I’m on caused, so, yeah, it’s productivity of a libidinal sort.

The UK is now on a very tight lockdown, much tighter than here.

Canada still hasn’t made any formal promises to pay non-laid off staff wages (so, alas, soon I must inevitably be laid off) and there is also no legislation about rent freezes. If the latter happens but the first doesn’t, I’ll be fine (because I’ve spent the last six months working almost constantly with the intention of paying off my debts) and if the former happens I’ll be golden even if the latter doesn’t, but if neither happen then I’ll be in a pickle in two or three months’ time because, as I’m on a “working holiday” visa here, I’m pretty certain I’m ineligible for any state unemployment insurance. This is fair enough, I suppose, as a native of a country OBSESSED with the fiction of “benefits tourism”: as an Englishman, I karmically deserve to lose out while there’s a pandemic on.

Anyway, my partner’s (my lover’s) family live close by, so we’ll be fine; just as I was technically homeless in the Autumn of 2017, if I’m technically homeless again now I will again be shielded by class privilege from destitution, even if I’m not personally shielded by assets or affluence.

In short, I’m worried, but nowhere near scared.

///

I picked up The Triple Echo because it was short.

At this stage, I can’t remember if it was a novel I found in the street or if I paid for it at a little secondhand bookshop somewhere, but either way I had no idea of its contents. I think I maybe confused H. E. Bates with L. P. Hartley, or I didn’t even think of it enough to do so until I found myself looking at it on my shelf a few days ago, questioning why I ever acquired it.

I knew nothing about The Triple Echo entering in, and all I learned from the author bio on the first page was that H. E. Bates wrote the novel The Darling Buds of May. This didn’t offer any help: I knew there was a 1980s TV show starring Catherine Zeta-Jones based on it, but I had no idea if it was a tense, fraught drama or a frothy comedy. I still have no idea, but it doesn’t matter, because this little novel was astoundingly – and yes, I was near-literally astounded – wonderful.

The Triple Echo is a short 1970 novel (maybe so short it’s technically a novelette) by English career novelist H. E. Bates. It was was made into a 1972 film starring Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson, both of whom are in Ken Russell’s wonderful 1969 adaptation of Women In Love. (I have only watched Women In Love once and it was well over a decade ago during a wonderful weekend away in York during my first year of university, and maybe the wonderful context made it seem better than it was.)

The Triple Echo is a story set in the Second World War, about a woman who has been left to maintain a farm while her negligent husband has gone off – as a farmer he was exempt from conscription – to fight. Far away, her loser husband has been captured and is now a Prisoner of War. Boohoo.

A handsome young man, stationed at the local barracks, starts hanging around and helping out on the farm, then he takes a week of leave and they start banging. After this week of hot rural passion, the soldier refuses to go back to the barracks and begins dressing as a woman to avoid the local Military Police.

Bad news, though, as the Military Police like hanging out at remote farms staffed exclusively by women. The absconded soldier begins enjoying the attention he gets from a particular sergeant and so accompanies him to a village dance on Christmas Eve. The sergeant tries to undress his date and finds male genitalia, realises they are a deserter on the run and – after a day off for Christmas Day – heads to the farm to capture the errant soldier.

The woman who owns the farm is fucking livid, though perhaps mostly because her lover turned out to be trans and/or bisexual – and shoots both her lover and the sergeant dead.

That’s the whole plot, but you were never gonna read The Triple Echo. No one is: I may be the last person who will ever read it. This is sad.

Bates tells his narrative using lots of dialogue; the prose is simple, gentle. It’s evocative of the countryside, of the fear of war, of sexual tension in a more repressive society, and of sexual aggression in a more patriarchal one.

When the soldier gains confidence and happiness once they become a woman, Bates’ depiction is neither sympathetic nor judgemental, merely matter-of-fact. The farmer disapproves of her lover’s behaviour, though – and maybe this is just me reading this as a progressive millennial in 2020 – the reader is not expected to share her response.

By choosing to murder the sergeant – a sexual bully and would-be rapist, stopped from fulfilling his violent desires only by his transphobia – and not only her lover, the narrative places some “blame” in the correct place: the corrupt “military industrial complex”.

Also, by murdering her lover – who likely would have been executed by court martial – she could arguably be enacting mercy, saving them the horrors of torture and further abuse and humiliation at the hands of the patriarchal military. It’s difficult to know how one is meant to see the book’s abrupt, violent ending.

It’s often a puzzle when reading texts like this (about sexually empowered women and gender non-conforming people): knowing how the author anticipated their readers would react.

Bates’ novel is from 1970, so there were plenty of progressive people about… but it’s set in 1940, Bates was 65 years old when he wrote The Triple Echo and he was a popular middlebrow novelist.

I honestly can’t tell if this is a hateful novel.

Did Bates think his readers who be disgusted by the adulterous woman and her gender non-conforming lover?

Did he think we’d be respectful of the “red-blooded” (i.e. lecherous and sinister) Military Police sergeant?

Does Bates ur-reader scorn the deserter? Do they see the loser farmer in a distant prison as a hero? I have no idea.

No one does.

But, yeah. It’s good.

3 comments on “The Triple Echo by H. E. Bates

  1. Jonathan

    H.E. Bates is a favourite author of mine. What a sad world it will be when no one reads Bates, or Hartley, any more. It’s their loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I mean, i thoroughly enjoyed this one! What else would you recommend? Always find venturing into the oeuvre of a book-most-years from university-to-retirement type writer terrifying!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan

    I’m glad you liked it; I haven’t read it yet but want to after reading your post. I started to read as much as I could from Bates a few years ago but then it stalled, a little. I generally like short stories, so I read mostly s/s from Bates and liked them all; I also read some of his essays on nature and, of course, though more recently, The Darling Buds of May series which is great. His views are most probably considered old-fashioned now, but then isn’t that part of the fun of reading old books. I used to see second-hand Penguin copies of his books everywhere but not so much now. Hope you enjoy your next read.

    Liked by 1 person

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