Burrows, Michael. Where the Line Breaks. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP $29.99, 224pp, ISBN: 9781925816341.
The First World War has been well documented in literature. From the poems and writings of those who experienced it—Brooke, Sassoon, Owen—to contemporary writers—such as Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks, Michael Morpurgo—exploring it well after the fact, the literary canon is full of writers focusing on this pivotal moment in history.
Yet there are much fewer works of fiction that explore the ANZAC experience. Michael Burrows has just added himself to that canon. His debut novel, Where the Line Breaks, was shortlisted for the inaugural Fogarty Literary Award in 2019. It is a tale of history and heroism, stories and narratives, and the role of the ANZACs in a history often told from the perspective of US and UK soldiers.
Where the Line Breaks is innovative in the way it is told through three narratives; in one the firsthand experience of war hero Lieutenant Alan Lewis, the second is the PhD thesis of London-based Australian student Matt Denton and the third is Matt’s own story told through footnotes. Matt has set out to prove that Lewis is the Unknown Digger, an unidentified war poet who is considered Australia’s answer to England’s Soldier Poets. But as Matt’s thesis develops and the story of Alan’s life unfolds, both men find that all is not fair in love or war as they negotiate relationships, social expectations and betrayal from both themselves and others.
At first glance it looks daunting to have to constantly jump between Matt’s thesis and the footnotes, but it flows surprisingly well and works in a myriad of ways to keep the reader on their toes, most significantly in raising questions about narrative ownership, the relationship between fact and fiction and how easily we, as readers, give ourselves over to whoever is telling the story.
History is a key word in Where the Line Breaks. By breaking it down, we have the idea that defines this entire narrative: his story. Matt narrates his own life through the footnotes, Lewis narrates his own version of events, and Matt tells Lewis’s story through his academic work. The entire book explores who can be trusted to tell a story accurately and how the biases of the narrator affect the reader’s understanding of supposedly ‘factual’ events. There are suggestions throughout that actually none of these narratives can be trusted.
He looks around. The men are nervous, glancing his way, waiting for orders. Waiting for him to say anything […] He should be decisive. He should be independent. He should be creative.
He should have decided five minutes ago.
He feels the thrill of university debates again. That same need for contrariness. (56)
Lewis is leading his men in a training exercise before they have even gotten to the real fighting. His ‘need for contrariness’ hints at the idea that Lewis changes his perspective to provoke others, and the repeated use of the word ‘should’ shows that Lewis is easily swayed. It is one of the many hints given by Burrows that the reader should go cautiously when considering the truth of his story.
This theme is further explored in the use of letters, poetry and other writing as symbols of historical sources. Lewis, as an officer, censors the letters of his men and though he is not subject to the same rule, he often censors himself by not sending the ones he has written.
Today we lost our first casualty to war. I told you, I think, about the two men who passed away in the hospital when we arrived, a terrible waste, and one you can’t help but feel powerless about. Today though, should have, could have, been avoidable … (58)
The casualty Lewis is referring to did not die in battle, and his clever manipulation of language shows how easily the narrative that will go down in history can be changed to hide his own shame. This is a ‘firsthand’ account, a primary source should it be discovered by historians, and it will be Lewis’s manipulation of the situation to his own version of events that will be taken as gospel by anyone who finds it.
In Where the Line Breaks there is a suggestion that heroism equates to truth. Matt’s thesis rests on the idea that Lewis could be the Unknown Digger partly because Lewis has been awarded the Victoria Cross; he is a war hero and with that comes the expectation that he is gallant and brave and honest.
You ask yourself, what would Alan do? And you pluck up your courage and ask her out for a drink […] What would Alan do? Retreat back down the line, or charge in and damn the consequences? (20-21)
Matt allows his own narrative to be defined by Alan, because Alan is a hero who sacrificed his life for others. This leads to Matt making decisions based on that which will alter the course of his own story.
I decided none of the backlash matters if I’m living the life Alan Lewis taught me to lead. Dive in, head first, and damn the consequences. (48)
But, as Matt later finds out, these consequences can have a severe impact on his own life and can’t be ‘damned’.
A further indication that Burrows wants us to interrogate the reliability of the narrator is seen in the fact that there is no direct speech—no quotation marks—in Matt’s footnotes.
34 Em says to put my head down and finish this thing, then we can start our life together proper. Jennifer Hayden says to keep fighting, like the diggers would. The Prof says not to listen to the doubters, prove I’m right and they’ll come around. Em says listen to the Prof. (48)
All of these characters tell Matt what he should be doing, but nowhere in there does he, as the narrator, say what he will do. He allows his life—his story—to be defined by the instruction of others.
Where the Line Breaks could have been self-indulgent, pretentious and difficult to engage with given the employment of such an unusual and seemingly complex narrative style. Instead it’s emotive, powerful and gripping, the triple narrative offering different perspectives on such a well-documented period in history and an alternative view on the idealism of heroes, war and love.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.