Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Germany, Picador, Publisher, Ralf Rothmann, Setting, war

‘To Die in Spring’ by Ralf Rothmann (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 208 pages; 2017. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring tells the tale of two 17-year-old boys enlisted to fight for Germany at the tail end of the Second World War.

Reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War novel All Quiet on the Western Front (first published in 1929), it’s a story that highlights the futility of war — from a German perspective.

Senseless bloodshed

Walter ‘Ata’ Urban and Friedrich ‘Fiete’ Caroli are dairy hands forced to “volunteer” in the Waffen-SS, the military branch of the Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS) organisation. It’s 1945 and the war is entering its final stages. Both are reluctant to join. Fiete knows it is all a con:

They didn’t drag us across the whole of the Reich just so that we can peel potatoes behind the front. We’re fresh fodder, and we’ll be fed to the enemy.

After minimal training, the two are split up fairly early: Fiete goes to the front, where he is injured almost immediately, while Walter becomes a driver for a supply unit.

The story is told in the third person but largely from Walter’s perspective. While his role does not involve direct combat, what he witnesses on the road is no less gruesome or confronting — from the field hospital tents, where he could “hear groaning and screaming from behind the tarpaulins” to seeing partisans being tortured by his superiors who laugh while they do it.

Somewhere along the line, he hears that his father, a camp guard at Dachau, has been deployed to the front as a form of punishment because “he gave some cigs away to camp prisoners”. Later, he learns that he has died, and while father and son were not close — “Well, he wasn’t exactly a role model. He drank and hit me and felt up my sister” — Walter feels obliged to find his grave to pay his respects.

He is given a few days’ leave and the loan of a motorbike to carry out his search, which plunges him closer and closer to the front and where, by a great stroke of luck, he comes across his friend Fiete again. But the reunion is a tragic one.

A beautiful and powerful read

To Die in Spring is a gripping read about innocent farm boys having to grow up very quickly in a war that is not of their own making. Or as Fiete tells Walter:

Christ, what am I doing here? I mean, if I had voted for Hitler, like most of them… But I wanted nothing to do with this mess, any more than you did. I have no enemies, at least none that want to kill me. This is a war for cynics, who don’t believe in anything but might makes right… when in fact they’re only mediocrities and weaklings, I found that out in the field. Kick downwards, bow and scrape upwards, and massacre women and children.

It’s poignant and heartbreaking, full of vivid descriptions, whether of peaceful wintry landscapes or bawdy pubs and dancehalls, but its true power lies in the way it depicts a generation raised by men — damaged by a previous war — who are forced to repeat history.

For the contemporary reader, aware of the very many atrocities carried out by the Nazis, To Die in Spring does not overlook the barbarity of those men, nor does it wallow in self-pity or guilt. It simply offers up a haunting, searing — and compassionate — story, and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

I read this for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy and Caroline. The book is short enough to also qualify for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. This is what you call killing two birds with one stone!

Amos Oz, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, holocaust, Israel, Poland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘Touch the Water, Touch the Wind’ by Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange)

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 158 pages; 1992. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author.

It’s not often a book goes over my head, but I’m afraid this 1973 novella by Amos Oz was a bit lost on me.

Touch the Water, Touch the Wind was the author’s fourth work of fiction.

The story arc traces what happens to a married couple after they are separated in 1939 during the Second World War and then reunited on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967.

When the Nazis advance into Poland, Elisha Pomeranz, a Jewish watchmaker and mathematician, evades capture by hiding in the woods not far from his home, reinventing himself as a magician and woodcutter. His wife, Stepha, stays behind, using her beauty and intelligence to survive.

When the war ends, Stepha moves to Moscow and becomes a high-ranking member of the Communist Party, Elisha makes his way to the Jewish homeland, via Austria, Hungary, Romania and Greece.

A master of reinvention

The story is mainly focused on Elisha’s experience, for when he arrives in Palestine he sets up a watchmaker’s shop and settles into a fairly routine, mundane life but one in which he is happy.

Later, after a sordid affair with an American woman who turns up on his doorstep, he worries that he is being watched by forces unknown. To become invisible, he reinvents himself as a shepherd tending a small flock on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country, where he tutors science to local schoolchildren to get by.

Later, he writes an important research paper that is published in a scientific periodical, attracting the attention of the world’s press and scientific community.

The article is by no means modest or insignificant : according to the headlines in the evening newspaper he has succeeded in solving one of the most baffling paradoxes connected with the mathematical concept of infinity.

But while some doubt the authenticity of Elisha’s discovery, his fame offers a form of protection.

Eventually, things come to a head on the kibbutz for even those in a position of power, while cognizant of the fact that they have a “mathematical genius” living amongst them, doubt his commitment to the cause.

A collage of prose styles

There’s a lot in this short novella that went over my head, perhaps because I just don’t know enough about the different aspects to Jewish life and history, but more likely because it’s written in an unusual style that I found hard to like.

The first third in particular reads like a Gothic fairytale with elements of magic realism thrown in for good measure making for pretty heavy going. There are later sections that feel like reportage, while others are lyrical and dotted with beautiful descriptions of landscapes and scenery. This constant switching in style made it hard to get a handle on the story as a whole.

That said, I suspect this collage of prose styles is deliberate. Because if I got anything out of this difficult novella it is that Jewish people have survived for centuries by using all kinds of techniques, whether that be assimilating, going to ground or pretending to be something that they are not in order to get by. For instance, Elisha’s constant reinvention of himself, first to evade the horrors of the Holocaust and later to avoid those pursuing him for nefarious purposes, is mirrored by the author’s constant change in prose style and tempo.

The text is also heavy with religious and sexual metaphors that began to wear very thin.

Not having read anything by Amos Oz before, I’m not sure how this book fits into his oeuvre and whether it’s indicative of his work as a whole. I’d be interested in hearing from others who have read his books and can perhaps suggest another novel that may be more suited to my tastes.

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve

Stella-Bain

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Laurent Binet, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

HHHH

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, Heydrich is a wonderful character — “It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Iraq, Kevin Powers, literary fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting, USA, war

‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers

Yellow-birds

Fiction – hardcover; Sceptre; 240 pages; 2012.

You’ve probably heard a lot about this book already. It’s been reviewed here, there and everywhere. And just a couple of weeks ago it won the Guardian First Book Award. It is, quite frankly, an astonishingly good first novel. It is not only a devastating account of the Iraq war, it is a compelling exploration of the aftermath on those who return home shell-shocked and psychologically damaged.

A promise that can’t be kept

The author, Kevin Power, served in the US Army in 2004 and 2005, where he was deployed as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. The Yellow Birds might be fiction, but I expect quite a lot of it is rooted in fact.

The first person narrator is  John Bartle, 21, who befriends Daniel Murphy, 18, when the pair of them are in training at Fort Dix.  For no other reason than they are both from Richmond, Virginia, Bartle takes “Murph” under his wing, a bit like an older brother would, and then makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“And you’re going to look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good.” How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me that you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure, I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him home to you.”

Of course, it’s glaringly obvious that Murph is not going to return home from war, but the manner in which he dies and the events leading up to his death are far from straightforward.

I could say the same about the structure of this book, which swings backwards and forwards in time between Bartle’s pre-war life, his tour of duty and his repatriation. This fragmented and disorientating format serves to mirror Bartle’s mindset — it is an ingenious way to tell a story that is very much focused on the psychological fallout of war.

This means The Yellow Birds is not an easy read. If you like linear narratives, you may well find this one confusing, although it is broken into clearly signposted sections — “September 2004: Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq” and “November 2005: Richmond, Virginia”, for instance — to help guide your way.

A confronting and often disturbing read

The Yellow Birds is also confronting — as you would expect from a story about war. But even though I’ve read countless books of this nature (and grisly true crime), there were many scenes depicted here that I found particularly gruesome and disturbing (a booby-trapped body on a bridge, for example) and even throwaway lines — “The bodies were hidden in alleys, were found in bloating piles in the troughs of the hills outside the cities, the faces puffed and green, allergic now to life” — possessed the devastating power to shock.

But it was the detached, numb-with-grief voice of Bartle upon his return to the US that I found most chilling. This glimpse into a returned soldier’s mind, unable to deal with the future based on what had happened in his past, is what I will remember most about this harrowing, heartbreaking tale. His loneliness, his despair, his anger — and his embarrassment — resonates off the page.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to Erich Maria Remarque’s classic Great War tale All Quiet on the Western Front — and with good reason. This is not a book that glorifies war or makes heroes out of those who take part; instead it illuminates the futility (and predictability), and leaves you with the burning question, what is the point of so much loss of life?

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, H. E. Bates, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, war

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H. E. Bates

Fair-stood-the-wind-for-france

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 255 pages; 2005.

H.E. Bates’ 1944 classic Fair Stood the Wind for France is one of the finest and loveliest books I’ve ever read. (The title comes from the first line of Agincourt, a poem by Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton.)

The story begins with John Franklin’s Royal Airforce plane crash-landing in Occupied France at the height of the Second World War. Franklin, who has been “actively operational” for almost a year and isn’t far off notching up his first 300-hours of flying time, is accompanied by a crew of four sergeants.

The five of them survive the plane going down in marshland, but Franklin’s left arm is badly injured. After walking for an entire day, they come to a small farm on the edge of a woods. Here, they are taken in by a mill-owner and his family, who hide them in an upstairs bedroom.

The men plan to escape to Spain, but Franklin’s injury has left him too weak to travel. A clandestine visit to a local doctor is arranged, but the only cure, it seems, is bed rest.

This does not go down well with his crew, who are anxious to head for the border. They are not sure whether to trust the mill owner and his family, and they are frightened to stay on French soil lest they be captured by German forces that patrol the local area.

Eventually, the crew are provided with fake travel papers, arranged by the mill owner, but Franklin decides to stay behind until his arm heals. During this time he is nursed by the mill-owner’s daughter, Françoise, a strangely quiet but observant and cool-headed customer, with whom he falls in love.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not your average sappy romance, however. Set against the horrors of war, it takes on a life-affirming force, and Bates’ prose is so elegant and pitch-perfect he somehow gets to the heart of human emotions without actually spelling anything out. In fact Bates’ writing is so stripped back — not one word is wasted — that it seems a feat of exceptional genius to wring so much emotion, drama and truth out of almost every sentence, every page.

Bates is also very good at evoking time and place. Because much of the story occurs over the course of a hot summer, there are beautiful descriptions of the French countryside baking in the heat, which, in turn, makes Franklin homesick.

Of England, his other thoughts were simple. He wanted a cup of tea. Since it must be mid-afternoon he found himself alone in the room, listening for the encouraging, clean, beautiful sound of rattled tea-cups. But as he lay there he could hear nothing but the deep and audible silence of the full summer day, so strong and drowsy that it seemed to press both his mind and body deeply back into the bed. Diana [his “best girl”] and tea and England: all of them like small and faintly unreal clouds, far distant and at the point of evaporation, on the horizon of the present world. A long time before they come any nearer, he thought. Ah well!

There is much tenderness and quiet beauty in this story, but there is heart-ache, pain and death, too. As Franklin grapples with his predicament — should he stay, or should he go — the reader begins to fear for the pilot’s survival: no matter which he chooses, surely his life is in danger?

This a book about trust and intimacy, not only between two people, but between allies in war. It is gut-wrenchingly sad in places, but brims with optimism. And when I discovered, towards the end of the novel, that Franklin was just 22, I found myself reeling from the knowledge. His maturity, his insight, his care for others — not just Françoise, but his crewmen, who must have been younger still — made my heart lurch. I defy anyone to read this book and not get completely wrapped up in this lovely, occasionally daring, story.

Fair Stood the Wind for France is not only destined to be on my list of favourite reads of 2011 at year’s end, but one of my favourite books of all time. Do beg, borrow or buy a copy if you can.

Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Dinsdale, Setting, war

‘The Harrowing’ by Robert Dinsdale

TheHarrowing

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Into the vast canon of Great War fiction comes another book set in the muddy trenches of France and Belgium. If you’re anything like me you will have read novels like this before, you will have come to learn of the blood, the mud, the barbwire, the stink, the mustard gas and the godawful fear of going-over-the-top, and you will wonder if there is anything left untold about this deadliest time in human history. In other words, is there any point in writing yet another First World War novel? Haven’t we heard all this before?

Like the best war novels, first-time novelist Robert Dinsdale takes a familiar subject and gives it a new twist, just as Erich Maria Remarque did with All Quiet on the Western Front (telling the story from a German perspective) and Sebastian Barry did with his Booker shortlisted A Long Long Way (telling the story through the eyes of an Irishman caught between two wars). In this case, The Harrowing is about two teenage brothers caught up in a war of their own; the First World War acts as a mere backdrop to their doomed and troubled relationship.

The story opens in Leeds, England, in January 1916. William Redmond, the elder brother, has awoken to find himself in hospital recovering from a nasty head wound. The wound, which plunged him into a long coma, was inflicted by his younger brother, Samuel, who inexplicably stoved his head in with a stone while the pair walked across a deserted moor.

Samuel is then banished, by his parents, to fight in the fields of Flanders, even though he is underage. When William discovers this, he vows to join the Chapeltown Rifles in order to find his brother and bring him back.

‘What’s the matter with you,’ snarls the old man [his father]. ‘Don’t you understand what we did for you? It’s finished. You don’t have to go. Your brother is gone, and you’re set to stay.’

And so, Dinsdale sets up a rather brilliant question in the reader’s mind: why would a brother want to kill another? And, more importantly, why would the wronged brother feel it necessary to go out of his way to help the brother that wanted him dead?

The title alone makes it obvious that this is a story based on Christian theology, specifically the “harrowing of hell” in which Christ supposedly descended into hell to forgive all those of their original sin. In an interview on the Faber & Faber website, Dinsdale says:

The implication, of course, is much bigger than the simple story allows. By the time of Christ’s ascension, Judas Iscariot — whose betrayal condemned Christ — was dead by his own hand, and thus damned to his own eternity in Hell. But in his harrowing of Hell, Christ would also forgive the man whose betrayal sent him to his agonising death — in effect, he would reach
out and lead the man who killed him into Heaven.

I think it’s important to grasp this concept to understand William’s actions, although it’s pretty clear within the first 30 or so pages that the siblings are polar opposites: William is the good brother, the saint, while Samuel is the bad brother, the sinner. This is mirrored in their attitudes to the war, established before the incident on the moor, when William states that he wants to sign up because it was “the only good thing to do” but Samuel insists that it’s not for him.

And other people note their differences in character: a drunkard tells William that Samuel was “just a little boy when the Devil called his name”; an uncle confirms that William has “always been a good boy” implying that his sibling hasn’t. This allows you to build up a clear picture of the two brothers, even if it seems a little too simplistic, a little too stereotyped. But later, as events unfold, both behave in ways that are so out of character, you realise that Dinsdale has offered up two very complex human beings full of contradictions and flaws.

By its very nature this is a somewhat grim and oppressive novel, with barely a glimmer of light to illuminate the darkness. But despite this I found myself reading it compulsively, if only to determine what it was that made both brothers behave so oddly. Ultimately, there is no neat ending here, no cut-and-dried solution, but as an exploration of moral courage and human fallibility, The Harrowing is a superb novel that marks Dinsdale as a writer to watch.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sebastian Barry, Setting, war

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

Alonglongway

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 304 pages; 2005.

It is 1915 and the Great War has just begun. Ireland, with the promise of Home Rule in its sights, agrees to send its own to fight for the nation.

Seventeen-year-old Willie Dunne, who desperately wants to please his loyalist father, a much respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, joins the Army because at 5ft 6in he is too short to join the force.

But when he came home and told his father, the big, blank, broad face of the policeman wept in the darkness. And then his three sisters, Maud, Annie and Dolly, lit the candles in the sitting-room and they all felt part of the tremendous enterprise because Willie was going to be in it, and they were proud and excited, though it might last a few weeks at most, because the Germans were known to be only murderous cowards.”

Willie’s regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, is sent to the muddied rat-strewn trenches of Belgium to fight for King and Country. Amid the mayhem, the bullets and the blood, Willie and his fellow soldiers eke out a harrowing existence, clinging to life by the flimsiest of threads.

During a brief sojourn home on some well-earned leave Willie finds himself caught up in the political events of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Troubled by what he sees, he begins to question whether he – and the rest of his regiment – have become the enemy of the Irish rebels. When he mentions these concerns in a letter home his father disowns him.

What follows is a heartbreaking account of one young man’s realisation that there is more to life than pleasing one’s father – and one’s country.

I had tears coursing down my cheeks as I read sections of this book filled as it is with moments of such desperate sadness. To know that Willie had endured so much — the  terror and violence and madness of the trenches — only to return to a country that had undergone a bloody revolution and no longer felt like his was very emotional. Coupled with a melancholy romance with Gretta, his childhood sweetheart, this book is a true “weepy”. But don’t let that put you off.

Sebastian Barry’s writing, so wonderfully lyrical and poignant (not surprising given that he is also a poet), is a joy to read. It is rich with the Dublin vernacular, not just in the quoted speech of the characters, but in the telling of the story itself. This makes the story come truly alive in ways that a more distant, staid narrative would not have achieved.

I adored A Long, Long Way on so many levels: its eloquent conversational prose; its ability to move a sometimes jaded reader; and its themes – the futility of war, Irish politics and how one young man learns to think for himself.

Very much reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s much lauded All Quiet on the Western Front, this book, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize, is a devastating read with a clear, bright ring of truth. I highly recommend it if you wish to read some First World War fiction that has a slightly different slant — that of the Irish soldier caught between two wars.

1001 books, Author, Books in translation, Erich Maria Remarque, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, war

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

AllQuiet 

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 224 pages; 1996. Translated from the German by Brian Murdoch.

Described as the classic anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front is a devastatingly emotional read about German soldiers fighting in the Great War.

Told through the eyes of 19-year-old soldier Paul Baumer, it details his experiences fighting in the Flanders’ trenches.

Over time Baumer undergoes a complete transformation from naive young schoolboy to hard-bitten soldier. He survives the harsh reality of frontline combat, sees many of his friends get mortally wounded or killed, and suffers serious injuries of his own. Eventually he begins to wonder what he will do when the war is over, because it feels like war is all he has ever known:

I am young, I am twenty years of age; but I know nothing of life except despair, death, fear and the completely mindless superficiality with an abyss of suffering. I see people being driven against one another, and
silently, uncomprehendingly, foolishly, obediently and innocently killing one another. I see the best brains in the world inventing weapons and words to make the whole process that much more sophisticated and long-lasting. And watching this with me are all my contemporaries, here and on the other side, all over the world – my whole generation is experiencing this with me. What would our fathers do if one day we rose up and confronted them, and called them to account? What do they expect from us when a time comes in which there is no more war? For years our occupation has been killing – that was the first experience we had. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what can possibly become of us?

The beauty of this book is that this is essentially a first person account of life on the frontline based on Remarque’s own wartime experiences. There are no heroics. No homage to the glories of war. Instead we read about the soldiers’ all abiding desire to avoid death, to cling on to life for however long it is possible to do so, amid the muddy, bloody, corpse-strewn battlefields of the Western Front.

Similarly, the story has little historical detail and no political insight. If you did not know that Baumer was German, you could easily mistake the soldiers as being British or French or Australian. This subtle message is perhaps Remarque’s greatest gift: All Quiet on the Western Front shows that all men are equal when it comes to war.

Despite being written in 1929, its message still resonates today.

I found this book to be an incredibly sad, lump-in-the-throat read but one that is powerful and life-changing. If you haven’t read it, then you must.