Valiant Gentlemen reimagines the lives and intimate friendships of humanitarian and Irish patriot Roger Casement; his closest friend, Herbert Ward; and Ward's extraordinary wife, the Argentinian-American heiress Sarita Sanford.
Valiant Gentlemen takes the reader on an intimate journey, from Ward and Casement's misadventurous youth in the Congo - where, among other things, they bore witness to an Irish whiskey heir's taste for cannibalism - to Ward's marriage to Sarita and their flourishing family life in France, to Casement's covert homosexuality and enduring nomadic lifestyle floating between his work across the African continent and involvement in Irish politics.
When World War I breaks out, Casement and Ward's longstanding political differences finally come to a head and when Ward and his teenage sons leave to fight on the frontlines for England, Casement begins to work alongside the Germans to help free Ireland from British rule
Sabina Murray is a Filipina American screenwriter and novelist - the recipient of various awards and fellowships, and a Professor at the University of Massachusetts. Murray has written historical fiction before, but never anything quite as impressive in size and scope as "Valiant Gentleman" - it's been described as her Magnum Opus, and I can certainly see why.
Roger David Casement was an Irish civil servant, activist, nationalist and poet - and, until shortly before his execution for treason, the holder of a knighthood.
Herbert Ward was a sculptor, writer, illustrator and explorer, and a close friend of Roger Casement. Before reading "Valiant Gentleman" I had a vague awareness of Roger Casement and his infamous "Black Diaries", but had no knowledge of Herbert Ward at all. The friendship that the two had spanned countries and decades - making it one worthy of the attention that Murray has lavished on it in this epic of a novel.
A friendship grown in the Belgian Congo, Murray writes the two men at the heart of this relationship with considerable skill, bringing them to vivid life and writing these fascinating, brilliant men with the care that their respective histories have earnt them. Whilst the friendship is at the heart of the book, Murray takes care not to let this read become fully male dominated, with Ward's wife Sarita entering the narrative and providing POV chapters that are wholly illuminating - shedding light on the two men as well as creating a fascinating character in Sarita herself.
Over the course of their lives and adventures, both men make decisions that surprise and baffle the reader - and the path that Casement ends up on is one that is often difficult to understand. Murray does an admirable job of conveying the motivations and passions behind the choices, but stops short of placing any judgements - instead imbuing the characters with so much life, and the novel with so much detail, that the reader is well placed to consider the moments that drove these men to their very different paths in life. Some of the situations may be uncomfortable for readers - but topics such as colonisation, betrayal and treason are never handled anything but fairly.
It is a huge book - there's no denying that. But it's one that's hugely readable - with a compelling plot drawn from life, fascinating characters who the reader will no doubt be keen to read more about, and resulting in a novel that serves as an admirable tribute to a friendship that crossed oceans. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.