THE POWERFUL and innovative novel Neverhome follows a young woman, Ash Thompson, on her journey to fight for the Union army during the Civil War and then to return home to her farm and beloved husband, Bartholomew. As he did in his previous novel Kind One, Laird Hunt has created a distinct and mesmerizing character, here narrating her story that is part American history and part allegory, part reality and part dream. Ash arrives “out of Darke County” in her new britches, shoulders a Model 1861 muzzle-loading Springfield rifle, and heads into battle. Why Ash acts as she does — why she gives up her name, Constance, and prior life, and why she continues to fight despite opportunities to opt out of the horrors of war — is somewhat of a mystery. The novel even draws attention to the problem of motive: when asked by her colonel why she signed up: “I did not answer his question. Just stared straight over his shoulder at the cot he had in his tent.” Later when the colonel asks again, Ash replies, “I am no spy. Sir, I just wanted to fight. I just wanted to go away for a while.” When the colonel says that these are two different things, Ash insists, “It’s one thing.”

This answer suggests not only a desire to fight for the Union cause, but also a fierce, deeply physical need to move out from a woman’s confined life, a need to throw herself into the world. Ash possesses courage and cleverness, but also a desire for all of life, beauty and death; for what the world offers, for the language by which to convey it. It is this poetic and carefully shaped language that carries the reader along page after page. Descriptions of the beauty of trees and birds and creeks are juxtaposed with the memory of seeing old blood caked on a shackle. The whole of it is what Ash seems to want and to suffer; when asked what surprised her, she answers, “Everything.” When extraordinary beauty appears is the midst of war, a reader is led to revere the beauty described in Ash’s poetic and sensitive voice: “We passed a pond had the moon painted on its middle. You could see moths diving at it, hoping their hope of the ages about reaching the light.”

Moreover, Ash has a fierce model in her own mother who was herself fearless, clever, and strong — her “legs made of iron” walking out of a pond “like tornadoes.” Ash wants to travel like her mother; she wants to lie under the stars, walk with a thousand others, and “plant my foot and steel my eye and not run.” Her dead mother speaks to her: “Go on. Go on and see what you got.” When Ash kills her first soldier, it is her mother she calls on to witness. “I saw it,” her mother whispers back. During the war Ash remains a fully capable double-self, easily shifting genders according to situation and need.

The war is documented in the episodic manner of a quest narrative, with battles and camp life and perilous escapes following one upon the other, often in the manner of a dream or hallucination. In this, Neverhome echoes other quest narratives in which reality, memory, and dream all play parts, and caves or forests or creatures or rescuers rise up out of who-knows-where, as in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene or in Don Quixote or the Odyssey. In consequence, the novel reads like a myth or allegory, and the style helps to universalize the particular story of one gender-shifting woman making her way into and out of war. Although this is the journey of life itself, the novel’s title suggests that the goal, “home,” and all that might mean, is always just out of reach. Towards the end, Ash has given up fighting and put on a dress to make her way back. The wife of Ash’s colonel notes that her journey to return to her farm and husband is like “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.” Ash’s brief lover, a nurse, tells of “argonauts” who made their way from Illinois to California despite the Indians. Ash’s journey is, after all, the kind of quest that marks many soldiers, many in America who settled the west, and indeed, many of us all. The episodic structure also suggests that war itself is hallucinated terror, a series of disconnected events. Ash’s story is not one with courageous heroic leaders or women nurses as saints; rather, she tells grim on-the-ground stories of ordinary soldiers in which death is everywhere:

There was dead sitting against trees, dead with their feet in the air, dead dangling over the boughs of trees. There was dead fallen three deep in creek beds and dead lying separately in a clearing tucked up to their chins in blankets of sun. I saw a head on its way to making a skull and thought about the belle and wondered if she was still wearing her own.

The colonel quotes to Ash from Aurelius, and those words anchor the accumulated experience of this war and of life itself:

“How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame.”

When Ash is trapped under a heavy stone, she shuts her eyes and the scene becomes the final conflagration of the world. We are reminded, as throughout, that her allegorical name suggests the Biblical ashes to ashes and dust to dust and that the end point of each life is no mystery:

I had walked out more than once of an after-battle and so had a fair idea of what lay clawing at the air that night around me. Ghosts of the new dead laughing down at what lay cut and burned and broken and still awake to it on the ground. Ours and theirs both fallen and it was impossible to know what color cloth it was giving up those moans. One boy called out for his aunt Jane. […] I expect every one of us there of either color had thought about those fights, like the Wilderness to come, when the wounded had been left where they lay and the forest had caught fire and gathered them all up in its burning arms.

Many of the episodes highlight such misery and the fragility of the human mind, but also the wiliness of our narrator. When she is captured by outlaws, she quickly changes into a dress and escapes by trickery. When a cannon blasts a tree on top of her, she follows the directions of a dying rebel soldier next to her and digs herself out from below. When she is sick and injured and caught in the nightmare delusion in which she imagines herself frolicking with the rebels in a stream, she finds a hospital. Once she realizes the doctors cure everyone by cutting off a limb, she escapes into the arms of a nurse who cures her, cares for her, loves her. But when Ash looks to leave, the nurse turns her over to the Union army as a spy and Ash finds herself in a lunatic house tied to a chair and tortured with buckets of ice water as she rages and cries and sees the end of the world:

I tried one of these times to walk home but the rivers grew wide and deep and the forest grew dark and thick. I turned back to battle then. The world was afire with it. I looked everywhere for a gun but couldn’t find one. The dead spoke to me on those walks. With mouths that floated above their own bodies with the flies. They clambered up to the rafters of barns and yelled down at me from the treetops, dangled by their knees from the clouds.

Yet again, Ash manages to cajole her way into doing chores and while emptying the slop bucket works a trick with a dress and is out. Finally Ash is worn down by the experience of death. She watches a boy “crawling to a grave would open up any minute,” stops by her colonel’s (now a general’s) desk, changes her clothes, and walks away. On her way home, she meets a “colored gal I knew straight off I had seen before” wearing contraband pantaloons. But the offered companionship is cast aside by the woman who has watched her mother downed by her master, “like a rat to spit on,” and whose babies have died. You didn’t fight that, she says to Ash, you did not “fight any inch of that.”

Towards the end, Ash sees a bizarre greenhouse made of photographic picture glass representing the faces of men, women, soldiers, and the dead, “away off in that other country knowing they would never get home.” Such a vision makes Ash determined to get home before “it was too late and Bartholomew and I and the wide world got turned to just some jelly dried to a cracked glass sheet.” But the return home is over before it has begun: her husband Bartholomew is a slave to local criminals who’ve commandeered the house and in the ensuing gun battle Ash kills all her enemies and then, mistakenly sees Bartholomew take aim at her, and kills him as well.

Fear, it seems, is the great undoer. Ash’s mother had hanged herself after her first experience with fear. “Your fear will find you out someday too, daughter mine. It will find you out and use its wiles and crinkle your heart.” So when Ash writes her general, she tells us: “Fear finds you out, I wrote. It always finds you out.” As her mother said, Ash is left with her own and the war’s heartache. Neverhome is intelligent, moving, and beautifully written. It haunts me yet.

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Martha Ronk is the author of one collection of short fiction, one ironic memoir, and 10 books of poetry, recently, Transfer of Qualities, longlisted for the National Book Award in poetry 2013, Partially Kept (2012), and Vertigo, a National Poetry Series selection 2007.