The Brave, by Nicholas Evans, Little, Brown

A couple of pages in and Nicholas Evans has already pulled all the heartstrings. A 13-year-old boy, Tommy, is visiting his beautiful young mother Diane, who is on death row with hours to live. Tommy is understandably a little angry, not so much with her, but with himself, his own powerlessness to save her.

Another reason for his anger, one which stalks every page of Evans’s latest epic, is guilt. It would have been much more apt to call this novel The Guilty. However, that title would not sit easily with Evans’s brand of big country, big-hearted storytelling. The author of the worldwide best seller The Horse Whisperer, Evans, you feel, simply doesn’t do dark. He does forgiveness and redemption, usually with lots of horses running around.

Yet for great swaths The Brave couldn’t be bleaker, with terrible secrets and lies lurking in every canyon. For the first eight years of Tommy’s life he believed his mother Diane was in fact his glamorous sister. He is relentlessly bullied at his brutal English boarding school – this is the damp, dismal 1950s – the only light in his life being a TV Western series featuring Ray Montane as the cowboy Red McGraw.

Then, lo and behold, Diane, a rising British actress who’s sparked a Hollywood gold rush, turns up at Tommy’s speech day arm in arm with Ray Montane. She delivers the news that she’s actually his mother, and is set to star in a movie with Gary Cooper. Life in Beverly Hills and on set in dusty Arizona quickly turns to nightmare for Tommy and Diane, as Ray proves to be anything but a hero.

Fast forward 50 years and Tom, now a lonely writer and filmmaker living in wild Montana, gets news that his estranged son, Daniel, a US marine, theoretically faces the death penalty following an atrocity in Iraq.

Evans works hard pulling the two big plots together, and while his prose is always vivid and often exciting and much detail is clearly well researched, the moment of truth between father and son seems less like an act of bravery than of narrative convenience.

Henry Sutton is author of ‘Get Me Out of Here’ (Harvill Secker)

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