By A.L. Kennedy. House of Anansi Press, 280 pp, $29.95, hardcover

If you want to know the terror of war, the fight and the fright of it, you can study all the history books you like, but that's not really knowing. That's understanding. To know the smell of it, the breathless boredom and adrenaline rushes, you turn to fiction. And particularly fiction of interior ruin, stories not about marching and making do, about what a long way it is to Tipperary, but about soldiering on despite a mind ravaged every dirty moment of every dirty day.

Day by A.L. Kennedy

That's the approach taken by noted Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy in her latest book. The story's protagonist, Sgt. Alfie Day, looks back in anger (and derangement, and shock) at his time first as an RAF tail gunner, then a POW in Second World War Germany. As the book opens in 1948, he's reliving his Kriegie years as an extra on a film shoot, where he hoped "he could work out his own little pantomime inside the professional pretence and tunnel right through to the place where he'd lost himself, or rather the dark, the numb gap he could tell was asleep inside him."

The numbness explains the book's cold, dissociative tone and Day's frequent use of the second person as he struggles to return to (or at least ape) humanity. It's an irritating strategy that's meant to irritate: his every use of "you", of italics to offset his bickering monologues, of obscure allusions to indistinct memories speaks to the psychological violence done to him by his experiences among the dead and dying.

Or–this is a story never short of an or–the war has only augmented his nature. "People get different in a war," he thinks. "They don't care like they used to. Or else they all turn into who they are, let it show where someone else can feel it, but nobody sees." Perhaps it's such licence that allows him to use his war training against his father, who, he's convinced, has done him and his mother a grievous wrong.

Retribution figures strongly, as does regeneration in a last-minute deliverance that, like war itself, suggests winning is grand and all, but not without its unspeakable price.

A.L. Kennedy appears at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on October 18 at 8 p.m. and October 19 at 10 a.m., at the Waterfront Theatre.