A review of The Great Big Show by Justin Lowe

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Great Big Show
by Justin Lowe
Blue Pepper
2007, ISBN 1847532349, $32.49, 419pages

The great big show is, of course, World War One. Justin Lowe’s epic poem has a Homerian feel about it. It’s about the same size as The Iliad too, traversing East Africa, Capetown, Sydney, London, and France in what seems like a massive undertaking, with minimalist literary tools. The characters are equally big. The key one is Freddy Mannsteim, the slightly crazed Major leading his difficult troops while coping with his own failed relationships: the nurse he once loved and left, his dead father, a murder, and a friend/enemy/colleague he can’t quite come to terms with.

There’s also Catherine, the odd nurse who both captivates and repels those around her — a kind of permanently absent, nebulous, beautiful, strong but slight love figure. There is also Cyril Oxley, commanding his Indian troop with one arm, Jane de Marche, the writer trying to make some sense of the war, Ana the artist, Corporal Pradham. It’s as if the characters function as a kind of strophe and antistrophe — the male voices pressing on with the war and the females analysing, wondering, and in their own way, pulling back even as they participate. The tension between these dispersed voices drives the narrative forward and helps give the story a drama which goes beyond the action on the battlefield.

There are times when Lowe’s poetic sensibility shines. The largeness of the novel is tempered by the intimacy of rich observation:

always men like this
suddenly frightened by their years
righteous men ghostly with nostalgia
trawling your eyes for their lost years
while their pretty sons flit between
darkness and light (277)

Each of the poems is titled, and functions on its own — most are good enough to be publishable individually. The poems each reveal their denouement: the shock of recognition that signals a completion of expression. There is always something new — and something glittering, within each poem:

he places Ana down
with the air of one given the job
of balancing the world on a pin (183)

The pieces seem to work like flashes of lightning amidst the storm. We get a glimpse of meaning, of characterisation, and then it is dark again. It’s hard to say whether it all works on a narrative level though. While Lowe does a good job of lightly touching on both character and setting — hinting at where we are, and painting an evocative image for the reader, it’s easy to get lost in the poetry. To work as well at being fiction as it does at being poetry, a tighter narrative structure might have been helpful.

It isn’t, for example, possible to lose oneself in the fictive dream in this work. The theme, too, is diffuse. We get a sense of history, and it’s a unique sense, told in Lowe’s rich sensual vernacular. From the “crimping smoke of the lumber yards” to the fly blown latrine on the battle field, these images are strong, powerful and reveal something of the place and time.

But it’s hard to follow the character’s stories. And harder still to see their development through the work. The writer Jane seems to have the last word, a kind of summing up of the devastation, pain, loneliness of war in the phenomenal poem that ends the book — “Askari”:

what reads like a book to one
is to the other what a mile weighs
while to him with the gun
breeds in rain
and dappled light (406)

Perhaps in a way, it doesn’t matter whether the narrative thread of The Great Big Show is strong enough to allow this work to function as a novel in the traditional sense. As a collection of snapshots — individual portraits of voices from our bloodiest war — The Great Big Show works beautifully. The reader gets an insider’s sense of the war — from those left behind, trying to make meaning in the face of the carnage and death, to those on the battlefield battling both domestic and military demons.

I’m not at all sure what happens to any of the characters and their stories, other than some sense of what actually happened in the War. The snapshots of these characters’ lives simply go back into the shoebox once the book is finished. But as a collection of poetry grouped around a theme, the poet’s skill is enough to make this a fascinating and worthwhile read, even without a fictive dream.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.