Book Review: Breaking Ranks, by Sir James McNeish

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_breaking_RanksbigLast year New Zealand lost one of our finest writers, Sir James McNeish. Luckily for us, he had just delivered the final pages for Breaking Ranks to his publisher.

The book concludes with an Epilogue, written by ‘a friend’ Bernard Brown. He details how Sir James had the idea for this book for years, knowing the first two stories and waiting for the third. Of these men, Dr Saxby, Brigadier Miles and Judge Mahon, Sir James knew only Saxby personally, but his meticulous research and the power of his writing make Breaking Ranks feel as if you knew them all while you read through what is, at its heart, a tragic biography of three interrupted lives.

Significance is a word I use a lot in my everyday life now – what makes anything significant and who decides on those parameters? The three men in this book – a doctor, a soldier and a judge – are not necessarily household names in New Zealand, but Breaking Ranks shows that you do not need to be the most famous person to be significant.

Dr John Saxby’s work in psychiatric care no doubt helped countless patients, and continued following his death. Saxby’s story is the longest of the three, and was the only one Sir James knew personally – this works to a great advantage. The details of their interactions, when Saxby would visit the house and help with the family’s DIY, gives you a greater connection, and following his death you feel the pain the McNeishs would have felt upon losing such a close friend in such a tragic way. There is a great and terrible irony in the doctor who ‘has the gift of saving others but not himself.’

Brigadier Reginald Miles survived World War I, headed back to the other side of the world for the Second World War, but did not return. Abandoning his command post to fight to the death with his men did not go as planned and there goes the second life interrupted, and tragic. There is a question mark around this death – I am still getting my own head around it and deciding on the truth. His final letter is published for the first time in Breaking Ranks, and offers some insight into those final days.

In New Zealand, Erebus means the worst air disaster this country has ever seen first, and the mountain second. Judge Peter Mahon fought for truth and justice for the 257 victims, and Sir James details wonderfully the processes Mahon went through to uncover it all – the inquiry, the review, the Privy Council appeal, and Verdict on Erebus. His son, Sam says: ‘If I have learned anything from my father at all, it is an obstinate refusal to back down in the face of adversity.’ Not the worst trait to pick up.

Sir James’ style of writing is personal and colloquial in nature, which I enjoy. The casual ‘I’ve been trying to get my head around it’ during a complicated battle formation makes me smile and feel glad that I’m not alone in my confusion. The failure to conform and fight for what these men believed in caused these lives of become prematurely interrupted. Sir James McNeish was one of our finest writers, and in his final act as a storyteller, he remarkably and skillfully gives the world an insight into the lives of three significant lives we should not forget.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Breaking Ranks: Three Lives Interrupted
by Sir James McNeish
Published by HarperCollins Publishers NZ
ISBN 9781775540908

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