Written in 1968, Figures in a Landscape was a debut novel sensation, almost taking out the 1969 Booker Prize, and filmed in 1970. Then it fell off the literary map. Which is a crime, because as far as novels about war go, this ranks among the best.
The plot is simple. Two POWs escape and are pursued by unnamed captors across unforgiving but unidentified terrain. We know nothing of the conflict, the opposing forces, or indeed the escapees (known only as MacConnachie and Ansell) or pursuers (referred to as ‘Goons’). On the surface, it doesn’t have much to recommend it. But England’s spare prose, taut and tense, draws the reader into the action and the very terrain itself (which appears to be somewhere in Southeast Asia). He makes us feel every sickening step, every painful injury, every gut wrenching pang of thirst and hunger, and ultimately the fear that drives the two main characters to acts of sacrifice in the name of love for a comrade in arms.
This is, ultimately, a story about what men sacrifice for each other. In war time, we usually call this heroism, but this is not a conventional story about heroic men. There are no Marvelesque heroics here. There is only frustration, anger, fear and panic. MacConnachie and Ansell fight the elements and each other as much as the enemy. But out of this is forged the kind of camaraderie, respect and love for another man that extreme deprivation can produce.
Figures in a Landscape is an emotionally draining read. I read it in two sittings, turning each page expecting the best or the worst, and never disappointed with what occurred.
This is not a book for anyone who’s suckled at the teat of Hollywood and comic heroics. It’s a story about real men in gruelling circumstances, and the authentic heroism that comes from feeling fear and panic but doing something for another man despite it. No wonder people don’t read it these days; it’s more confrontational than our feminised comics, movies and pop culture can take.
Oh, and the cover. Brilliant. One of the best I’ve seen.