Title: Bonds Of Earth
Author: G.N. Chevalier
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Amazon: Buy Link Bonds of Earth
Cover Artist: Justin James
Length: Novel (234 pdf pages)
Genre: historical m/m romance (post-WW I)
Rating: 5+ out of 5 stars, DIK
A Guest Review by Feliz
Summary Review: This beautiful, multi-layered love story swept me off my feet with fantastic writing, lifelike characters and a sense of time and place that was so acute I felt like I was there.
The Blurb: In 1918, Michael McCready returned from the war with one goal: to lose himself in the pursuit of pleasure. Once a promising young medical student, Michael buried his dreams alongside the broken bodies of the men he could not save. After fleeing New York to preserve the one relationship he still values, he takes a position as a gardener on a country estate, but he soon discovers that the house hides secrets and sorrows of its own. While Michael nurses the estate’s neglected gardens, his reclusive employer dredges up reminders of the past Michael is desperate to forget.
John Seward’s body was broken by the war, along with his will to recover until a family crisis convinces him to pursue treatment. As John’s health and outlook improve under Michael’s care, animosity yields to understanding. He and John find their battle of wills turning into something stronger, but fear may keep them from finding hope and healing in each other.
The Review: Michael McCready dreams about becoming a doctor. In the early 19hundreds, a nearly impossible dream for a “Mick” from the Bowery, but Michael is determined not to let his background dictate the course of his life. Since Michael is also what his contemporaries call an “invert”, he finds a highly particular way to go about his goal.
Orphaned at an early age, he can’t escape the reluctant care of his aunt and uncle fast enough. At age sixteen, he dives headlong into the half-world of bathhouses, fairy clubs and cabarets, where he, in his own words, “sucked cock for a living” until Millie, a bathhouse owner, takes him under her wing. With her help, Michael becomes a “rubber” (a masseur who also provides sexual services to his customers) by night while studying medical textbooks by day. Eventually, Michael manages to enroll into Dublin medical school, and has every hope and intention to leave the sex business behind for good.
Just as Fate wants it, the War breaks lose after Michael has finished his first year, and he volunteers as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. In what follows he spends two years at the front, and then two years in the soldier’s hospitals as a physical therapist, revered by his patients for his empathy and compassion. But those years take everything he has to give and then some. When he finally breaks down, worn out from all the misery he witnessed, his boss Dr. Parrish sends him home.
However, the man who returns to New York isn’t the same who left four years ago. To say it with Michael’s own words:
“….Christ, Millie, he wanted to say, you have no idea. For you, it’s been a few short years. For me, it feels like a fucking century. And every time I dream now, it’s a nightmare….”
I guess we’d call what ails Michael PTSD and burnout syndrome these days, but Michael’s contemporaries neither have words for it nor any patience for the victims.
While Michael seems to be in a constant state of self-hatred and anger, he’s also drifting, hollowed out, all ambition burned out of him in the hell he just escaped. Hedonism is the name of his game now, but however much he indulges in carnal pleasures, he can’t seem to find a purpose to live for anymore. Were there not his sister, Margaret, and her two children, who he loves with every last bit of his heart. It is by threatening this last connection to his former life how Michael’s uncle manages to blackmail him into taking a gardener’s job for the owner of a manor in the remote town of Stuyvesant.
The inhabitants of the manor are an elderly groundkeeper/ housekeeper couple, their orphaned granddaughter, and the manor owner’s nephew. The latter, John Seward, is actually a man about Michael’s age, but he’s living the life of a recluse since he returned from the war, and what little Michael gets to see of Seward doesn’t inspire in him any desire for closer acquaintanceship with his surly, moody fellow veteran. However, a series of events brings them faster and closer together than Michael would ever have imagined.
Seward has seen too much and experienced too much. In the trenches of Ypern, his body was broken literally within an inch of his life. He did survive though, while other men, soldiers serving under his command, died next to him, an experience which left his soul even more broken than his body. But under Michael’s skilled, merciless and determined care, Sewart slowly sets foot on the arduous and painful path towards healing. Unexpected for both men, though, it’s not only Seward who returns back to life. Guiding Seward’s steps, Michael proceeds alongside the other man. Until, after a while, their clearly defined role boundaries become blurred as they realize they might have more in common than the harrowing memories of the trenches. They move from reluctant therapist and ornery patient to tentative allies to friends, and then beyond friendship towards a new bond, which, although it might get them both in trouble with the law if they’re ever found out, soon becomes something both men won’t ever again live without.
Not surprisingly, Michael is the better worked-out of the two, as he is the viewpoint character. But through Michaels perception, through the dialogue, and most of all through his own actions, Seward comes alive on the pages too. Throughout the story, both characters stay true to themselves without fail, yet prove adaptable enough to change their set ways, to grow, both as fictional characters and as human beings. In the beginning it’s very much the social environment of their formative years that defines them. But once fate and circumstances bring them together, once shared dire experiences make them open up to each other, they converge, become equals. In a way, their relationship could be taken as some kind of metaphor for the time they live in, a time of change, brought upon the world by the cruelest of all wars. Traditional principles and concepts suffocated under the crumpling walls of the mustard-gas filled trenches while from the same blood-soaked earth rose a new reality with a new awareness of political and human morals and values. Yet, all philosophy aside, this story is still a romance, and a beautiful one at that, with vivid, authentic and incredibly lifelike characters who I’m unlikely to forget anytime soon.
Next to the characters, this book took my breath away with its feeling of time and place. The glimpses I was granted into the half-world gay culture was at that time were particularly fascinating to me, although the other settings, from the Bowery to the veteran clinic, were equally well worked out.
From the tone of the narrative, to the character’s mindsets, their way of talking, the very real threat of imprisonment or institutionalization that hung above homosexual relationships then, every little detail added up to a consistent, harmonious whole. Despite the mountain of research that must have gone into this book, there’s nothing schoolmasterly about the historical details, they’re smoothly woven into the story flow.
No attempt was made to explain the period or anything that went on in the greater whole of the world at that time. It was all just there, exactly like it would’ve been for Michael and Seward, and my level of knowledge, as the reader, didn’t exceed theirs. Michael, the narrator, just took me along for the ride, and I saw his world through his eyes and shared his thoughts on the things he encountered.
And I shared Michael’s memories. Flashbacks of what he experienced in the war popped up now and then, sometimes brought on by something he saw in the present time, but sometimes seemingly out of the blue, just as you’d expect with a badly traumatized survivor – which, again, added to the fascinating authenticity of Michael’s character. Some flashback sequences were there simply to wise the reader up about facts from Michael’s past, but some of those flashbacks were just that, memories fit to create nightmares.
This is the kind of book I can lose myself in, a book that’s all about the story and not in the least about the effect. Nothing in here seems forced, let alone put in just for playing to the gallery. Even the sex happens because it has to, almost like a force of nature, but never for its own sake. (in fact, when I came upon the first explicit scene, I almost wished it had been fade to black – I was so immersed in the intense emotions at that time that I’d have rather been left alone to dream my part instead of having to actually participate in the down and dirty. (Am I making sense here at all? 😉 )
This book was intense, engrossing, poignant and amazingly well written, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. As far as I’m concerned, this book is a rare pearl and a precious find. Don’t miss it.