First published back in 2005, British author Tim Lebbon’s novel ‘Berserk’ followed on from an impressive line of well-received and highly-regarded novels.  The book was initially released by Necessary Evil Press as a limited edition hardback consisting of just 462 signed and numbered copies.

DLS Synopsis:
Tom Roberts had never truly gotten over the death of his son Steven.  After all, can you ever really get over the death of one of your own offspring?  It had been ten years since his son had died.  Tom and his wife Jo had been told that he had been killed on Salisbury Plain whilst on a supposed army training mission.  Now, ten years on and fifty-five year old Roberts had come to accept the death of his only child.  Over the years the memory of Steven had faded.  But he was always there at the back of Tom’s mind.  His memory never left him.

Recently, Tom had taken to spending an hour or two on a Friday night by himself in the local pub.  And it was there, with the ten year anniversary of Steven’s death just around the corner, that Tom overheard a small group of men talking about their army days and Salisbury Plain.  But it was one particular comment that he overheard that got him out of his chair and confronting the men as they went to leave.  One comment that stayed with Tom that night.  One haunting comment.  “They kept monster there”.

But it was when one of the men, Nathan King, returned to the pub a few days later that Tom was able to quiz him properly on what he knew of the deaths on Salisbury Plain all those years ago.  Fifteen deaths that he was convinced were part of a cover-up by the army.  Fifteen men who he was to learn died on Porton Down and not Salisbury Plain like the mourning families had been told.

And when Tom is told of the real resting place for his dead son, he breaks into the secured army grounds to see it for himself.  A mass grave where the bodies of the soldiers who tragically died that day were really buried.  But as he is soon to find out, they didn’t all die there.  Some of them were taken away.  One of which was his son.

But it’s in that mass grave, dug up under the cover of darkness, that Tom Roberts finds more than just the corpses of the unfortunate soldiers.  Chained up in the muddy depths of the hastily dug grave, Tom finds the remains of a small girl, chained to two headless corpses.  A girl who seems to be moving.  To reach out to Tom and grasp him.  A long-dead corpse that seems to speak to Tom through his mind.

And what he learns from the pile of rotten flesh and brittle bones that had once been a ten-year-old girl called Natasha is of a cruelty a deceit that has remained buried away for the last ten years.  A race who had been exploited by the army for their own selfish needs.  They are the berserkers.  And eating people is what they do…

DLS Review:
If I’m honest, I’d have to confess that I’m not really all that sure what I made of Lebbon’s novel ‘Berserk’.  It’s certainly a slow-burner that plods along at its own pace, interested more in setting an all-encompassing bleakness and unnervingly mysterious atmosphere, rather than bursting forwards with anything like a galloping adrenaline-fuelled pace.

Indeed, Lebbon spends a large proportion of the novel working through the maelstrom of chaotic thoughts and deep emotional conflicts within his two completely contrasting main characters – our principal protagonist Tom Roberts and the principal antagonist, the murderous ex-army officer Cole.    Throughout the length of the novel the story jumps between these two characters, detailing two very different but equally troubled perspectives.

The character of Tom Roberts is an easy character to like.  In fact he’s one you can quickly build a connecting bond with; both sympathising with his spiralling plight and ultimately rooting for him in the face of such an emotional battlefield.  On the other hand you have Cole (aka Mister Wolf).  Here Lebbon has created a wonderfully thought-provoking antagonist, whose misguided sense of (potentially deluded) doing-it-all-for-the-greater-good has ultimately created a murderous monster.  Indeed, as the story progresses, Cole gradually begins to take on a role ever-so-slightly akin to that of Anton Chigurh from ‘No Country For Old Men’ (2005).  In fact, if you throw in a hefty helping of say Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Chimera’ (1982) with Clive Barker’s ‘Cabal’ (1988), William Meikle’s ‘Berserker’ (2010) and a touch of say David Wellington’s ’13 Bullets’ (2011) – all within a rough horror-cum-dark-mystery shell, then you’d be damn close to what Lebbon has to offer here.

Although the novel isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with action, it still has a certain intensity about it.  If you breakdown what actually happens across the length of the book then, other than in the last fifty pages or so, it’s actually very slow moving.  However, across the emotional battleground that Lebbon portrays it’s a whole other ballgame.  Here the characters are beaten down over and over again with what seems to be an endless stream of personal traumas.  Lebbon magnifies every thought, feeling and consequence.  He shines a heart-wrenching light on each bitter breath of suffering that Tom Roberts goes through.  And ultimately he shows how this painfully human individual manages to overcome the most emotionally-crippling series of events that could possible fall upon one person.

However, keeping such a close proximity on the characters ultimately has its downfalls.  The story’s pace suffers massively, as does the overall expanse of the plot.  And outside of the two principal characters, the rest of the tale comes across as somewhat hazy, with suggestions of a much more explosive plotline that never really takes off more than in a handful of close-quartered bursts of (somewhat repressed) action.

All in all, if you can stomach a tale that plays out a more constrained and plodding pace, then there’s certainly a lot that can be enjoyed within ‘Berserk’.  The novel’s well-written and offers up some interestingly thought-provoking angles to an otherwise uninspiring story.  It has its moments – but perhaps there’s just that bit too much emotional padding around them to keep most readers fully engaged throughout.

The novel runs for a total of 337 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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