Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.
There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.
Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.
Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.
Dying days of war
The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.
The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.
Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.
Stress and fear
Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.
This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.
“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.
Creeping sense of unease
As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?
Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.
Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.
5 thoughts on “‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch”
I’ve had this on my shelf (in the Knopf edition with a stunningly simple Peter Mendelsund jacket design) for a few years, and your review has made me keen to finally get it down as it sounds great. I read Bausch’s most recent collection of stories, ‘Something is Out There’, a while ago and thought it was superb, quite similar to Charles Baxter and Russell Banks.
I bought this from Foyles when the book first came out and it has been sitting on my shelves ever since. Not sure why I decided to read it now, but it was an unexpected delight. I thought I would be able to get through it quickly because it is so small, but actually it took me just as long as a much thicker novel because it wasnt a book to rush through… there is lots to mull over.
Hi Kim, I’m glad you’re back and love the new look blog. I admit though I miss the star rating….. But I understand why you don’t want to do that anymore, but I miss it!!
Thanks, Kate. Sorry to have removed the star ratings, but my conscience feels a little clearer without them. You can always see what “mark” I give if you follow me on GoodReads,
On 15 September 2014 00:29, Reading Matters wrote:
Oh, this sounds wonderful! Even from the excerpt of Christianity you added; I believe God is one of love, not vengeance so that will be interesting for me. And I so agree that a book does not have to be 500 pages to have an impact. In fact, a book of 500 pages nowadays is often just plain silly. (The Priory of the Orange Tree, so greatly praised, comes to mind.) I think the only 500+ page book written in the 21st century that I’ve found powerful is A Little Life, but look how far I’ve digressed from your post. Off to find Peace.