Fay Weldon shot to fame in the 1980s when one of her books "The Life and Loves of a She-Devil" was made into a very successful TV drama. It was one of those rare classics that seldom appear on our TV screens and when they do they're never to be seen or heard from again. Although I have never read any of Weldon's books until now, I do remember her appearing from time to time on various chat shows or panel shows such as Question Time and I must admit I've never really warmed to her after seeing her on TV. On Question Time I always remember her as indecisive and unable to get her words out or to get a clear relevant point across so as to make an intelligent contribution to the debate. Maybe it was for this reason that I didn't really expect to like this book that I found covered in dust at the back of a cupboard in my parents house. Flicking through the pages however, I noticed that there were paragraphs describing various Napoleonic wars. Realising that the book contained many such historical facts, I decided to read on with the hope that I might, if nothing else, learn something along the way. It turned out to be a delightful little read.
The book is a short novel of about two hundred pages and is set in the Shrapnel Academy - an institution dedicated to the memory of Henry Shrapnel, inventor of the exploding cannon ball in 1804. The Academy is a teaching institution situated in a large country manor and is about to hold its annual Wellington Lecture which, this year, is to be given by General Leo Makeshift who looks upon the Academy as a 'shrine to the ethos of military excellence'. The institution is managed by the authoritarian Joan Lumb, a colonel's widow. She has invited 12 guests to stay for the weekend before the lecture takes place on the Saturday afternoon. She is assisted by Muffin, her secretary and Acorn, her handsome African butler. The main events of the story take place during the course of the Friday evening when all the guests arrive for Joan Lumb's 'Eve of Waterloo' dinner party. During the initial chapters we are introduced to each of the guests as they arrive in ones or twos by car or otherwise. They include the general in his Rolls Royce accompanied by Bella, his sultry young mistress; Baf - an arms dealer and Muffin's bit on the side - who arrives in his green sport's car; Medusa, or "Mew" - a feminist newspaper reporter who has to hitch-hike to the manor after her motorbike runs out of petrol; retired soldier and torture victim Murray Fairchild and his war wounds arrive by taxi. Joan Lumb's younger brother Victor with his wife Shirley, their three children and Harry the Doberman are also invited.
As the guests settle in, Joan Lumb is aided in a large army of foreign servants whose dwellings are down in the basement where unbeknown to her, a multitude of illegal immigrants reside. They are led by the enigmatic but disgruntled Acorn who has a sinister pot in mind to overthrow the ruling class upstairs. During the course of the evening food and drinks are not the only things on the menu. Lust, bigotry, jealousy, prejudice, chauvinism, and greed are all served up in ample portions whilst outside a snow storm brews which later traps the guests in the house. Little do they know that all-out war is being declared beneath their very feet and Acorn has added a little extra ingredient to the Pâté sandwiches.
The Shrapnel Academy is a well crafted and nicely balanced novel with plenty of wild comical moments that are interspersed with more sobering commentaries. Weldon writes with some beautiful narrative in which the main characters are colourfully developed. There are also some wonderfully constructed pieces of dialogue. Alongside the main story, scattered amongst the chapters are detailed asides of famous battles from the feats of Alexander the Great to the tactics of Napoleon as well as the exploits of some lesser known generals such as the great Swedish military tactician Gustavus Adolphus. Clearly a lot of hard research has gone into the book. These short history lessons leave you wanting to know more. Weldon's account of Napoleon's Grand Army retreating from Moscow across Poland has made me want to read more about this gruesome event. Along the way we also learn some intriguing facts and figures about the progress and ingenuity of weaponry and warfare, battle systems and casualty rates - from the start one can detect that this is clearly an antiwar novel.
The plot unfolds at a simmering pace chapter by chapter until we reach the grand climax at the end of the book. The ending is an abrupt one and possibly the one weakness of the novel. In fact the last two short chapters seem rather rushed as if the author was trying to meet a deadline. Even though this sudden finale is acknowledged by Weldon to the reader within the story, I still felt rather cheated and kind of left in no-man's land, although I suppose that's one sentiment many people have when a war ends. For the most part though, this is a book certainly worth reading. The Shrapnel Academy is a thought provoking and informative novel that also manages to be highly entertaining at the same time.