My novel ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’ has been described as a cross between ‘Cider with Rosie’ and ‘Birdsong’, which is as good a place to start as any for the Authors’ Lounge. It is ostensibly a war novel, but is the story of the working-class Tommy in 1917; the story of thousands of young men who were caught in the collision between old rural values and the relentlessness of a new kind of war. It is a story that connects the past with the present through land, love and blood. The title comes from the hundred years between my ancestor falling at the Battle of Arras and me and my family standing at his graveside. It’s the one spoiler I’ll give you, as it’s difficult to contextualize the novel without acknowledging that the central character is buried in France. The question is when, and therein lies the tale…
On Easter Monday 1917, Private Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry fought at the Battle of Arras, and the events of that day are the central focus of the novel. Along the way, we see friendships forged in the trenches and the everyday life of soldiers waiting for the inevitable attacks to come. Drawn from real experiences, our main characters live through gas attacks, trench warfare, chasing down kidnapped dogs, and the tedium of hiding in the ground in freezing conditions. There is mud and mayhem but also love and laughs, as we are also taken back to Robert’s childhood on a Somerset farm, his relationship with nature, his parents, and tentative romances. I write in literary, descriptive style, but the pace is relentless, rich in action and adventure along the way.
Although fictionalised, the novel is based on a real person. Robert Gooding Henson was my great-grandmother’s sister’s son. I had known nothing about him until a chance conversation between my father and his elder sister brought him to my attention. I immediately did some research and investigated the movements of the regiment throughout 1917 into that fateful day on 9th April 1917. My father died soon afterwards, and I resolved to write the novel as a way of connecting family to the past and present, capturing an aspect of family history as emblematic of how the Great War changed the country and continues to affect us to this day.
‘A Hundred Years to Arras’ is a literary novel. It is also historical fiction, so in terms of target audience it is quite broad. If you like the aforementioned Sebastian Faulks of Laurie Lee, you’ll find something in this for you, but it also has broader appeal. Some readers have been attracted to the military aspects, some to the use of language, and others to the personal story. It has been described by reviewers as beautifully written and deeply moving; I have been blown away by the reception, especially given that my publisher Unbound is relatively small without the marketing clout of any of the big guns.
The book is stocked by many independent bookshops and some branches of the major chainstores, as well as being available from all online booksellers, so the potential for wide distribution is there. My ultimate goal is to get it in every branch of Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, WH Smith and more, but the power of word of mouth is the most important thing. I want it to be a novel that has longevity and continued positive critical reception. Getting onto prize lists would be nice of course, but this a novel that will touch your soul if you let it. It isn’t simply a war story; I tried to make it something that explores our relationship with nature and time, and our responsibility to each other. It reminds us in these dark times what is worth fighting for.
In this extract from later in the novel, I sum up the themes that I’ve aimed to explore:
“The land sweeps. The mind strays. The soil can be swept away, but the heart is deep-rooted. It always returns. The land, broad and deep, is home. The warmth of the farm and the embrace of the hills, the coldness of the battlefield and the pulse of blood are on in the earth. The land knows no time”.
In my day job, I’m a teacher of English. I have also been the Head Teacher of a school within a mental hospital for teenagers, where I saw first hand how trauma can affect perception, and this continues to affect my work. I have written extensively for younger readers over the years, mainly in the area of comics, amongst others having adapted ‘Frankenstein’ as a prize-winning graphic novel that is used in many schools. ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’ is my debut novel for adults, published by Unbound. Throughout 2022, I’ll be at as many book fairs and literary festivals in the UK as possible, signing books and meeting people, in between the day job and working on my next novel, this time set in South Wales at the time of the miners’ strike and the Tonypandy Riots.
You can find out more by visiting my website at jmcobley.wordpress.com. The novel is available from all good booksellers including Amazon and Waterstones in the UK and Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the US, as well as your local independent bookstore.