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Monday 8 August 2016

Book review - The Enemy I Kill

Alexander Knox, the well-known actor, had written two novels and three plays prior to this adult adventure yarn (1972). The story is set in the area of the Great Lakes of Canada in 1770. Seventeen-year-old Calvin Heggie, fairly fresh from Berwick-on-Tweed, is fired from his post with the Hudson’s Bay Company and finds himself isolated in the wilds.

He’s fearful of Indians, yet manages well enough when encountering three old warriors who seem harmless enough, even amusing and witty. A short while later, he meets up with a man called Red and two very attractive Indian girls, Moonluck and Kittypet. Before long, they come to an island and enjoy an idyllic life; soon he is bathing naked with these three and loses his virginity: ‘She was the first woman and he was the first man… The island lurched about, churning his teeth, bones, brains and guts, and erupted into what he recognised quite clearly, even at such a time, as the creation of a vast new life. Nothing as small as a baby, or himself, but a whole new universe.’ (p84)

Knox spent his childhood in Canada and was steeped in the traditions he wrote about. He brings observant descriptive power to the natural world that Calvin and the others inhabit: ‘The flock was two miles wide – so wide it concealed a lake, so dense it cast on the hills a moving shadow, blacker than the shadows of the clouds. The immense flock settled slowly and was swallowed by the tree-tops.’ (p51)

Overshadowing their idyll is the thought that the families of the two girls are searching for them. And then there’s the rumour that the warrior Longhair is abroad, even though he was supposedly killed. Their glorious summer is marred by capture and horror, and gruesome torture involving genitalia, while women and children look on: ‘The pain of a foreigner isn’t really pain, he thought.’ (p208)

Some scenes are not for the squeamish. Yet there are moments of tenderness as well as violence, dry humour, insanity and despair.  

Knox died in Berwick-on-Tweed in 1995, aged 88.

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