After our visit with Anita Shreve for Stella Bain, and our book club discussion of John Boyne's The Absolutionist, I was chatting with Jane about the lasting effects of World War I and why it's seems to still resonate with writers enough that there are a steady stream of novels coming out that use The Great War as their jumping off point. For me, it was interesting that both novels I recently read had pacifists at the core, struggling not just with WWI, but with war itself.
Interestingly enough, another major novel this fall reflects on these issues. The Cartographer of No Man's Land (Liveright), by P.S. Duffy, was one of the picks at the editors' buzz panel at Book Expo America. It was also one of the featured titles on the "Indies Introduce" program, and well might have been the panels fiction pick. The family is from Nova Scotia, and the story follows Angus McGrath, who has enlisted, defying his pacifist father (connection one) and is on the search for his missing brother-in-law Ebbin. That quest to find the missing person is also at the heart of Boyne and Shreve's novels.
McGrath finds himself on the front lines, facing the new chemical weapons, and dealing with devastating losses, while the family he left behind is caught in their own drama, when McGrath's son Simon is involved in a controversy defending the town's German schoolteacher. I was just talking to a visitor about how Milwaukee erased a lot of its ethnic German-ness in World War I (like teaching kids in German in the schools), for fear of similar reprisals.
Fellow Canada-phile (Corrected! Ms. Duffy is a Minnesotan who still knows a good Canadian story when she hears one) Frances Itani praises P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land in The Washington Post. "Turning the final page, I wanted to go back to the beginning, if only to contemplate a writer who has such a broad and compassionate understanding of the human condition," she writes. I just had this conversation about women using initials to not be put into the box of woman writer. Another publicist was surprised to hear that a local radio producer who uses initials was a man, as publishing folk are so used to that generalization. It turns out that outside of writing, plenty of men are known by their initials.
I've talked a bit about Me Before You, but it turns out that JoJo Moyes' follow up novel, The Girl You Left Behind, definitely fits in my Great War roundup. Moyes covers two love stories set almost a century apart, united by a painting titled, of course, "The Girl You Left Behind." In the historical plotline, German soldiers commandeer a hotel for their meals, and the Kommandant takes a liking to the painting. Sophie Lefevre tries to use this to help get her husband out of a prison camp, but of course their is a price. And in the contemporary storyline, the recently widowed Liv, for whom the painting is a prized possession, is confronted by the owner's descendants, who claim the painting was stolen during the war and is not rightfully hers.
Elisabeth Egan wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Minor quibbles aside, The Girl You Left Behind is, well, impossible to leave behind. Even the most hard-hearted reader will want to know what happens to these women, not just the flesh-and-blood ones but also the bewitching one on the wall. Where will the painting land, and was its subject a casualty of war? In this moving paean to daring, determination and perspicacity, Moyes keeps the reader guessing down to the last hankie."
Another book I left behind this fall (hey, there are a lot of noteworthy books out there) is Thomas Kenneally's The Daughters of Mars (Atria), which looks at World War I from an an Australian's perspective. Once again, there's a tie in to Stella Bain, as this novel is told from the perspective of two nurses serving the troops on the western front. The carnage is horrifying, but the plot is also driven by a conspiracy between the two, as well as two love stories. As Kirkus Reviews notes, this is a war story first and foremost, so it cannot end well. That said, the reviewer offers that "Keneally is a master of character development and period detail, and there are no false notes there."
The historical context for The Daughers of Mars is Gallipoli, the battle where Australians felt they were used as pawns in an attack gone bad by the British and French on this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Per Alan Riding in The New York Times Book Review, Gallipoli attack is still a day of remembrance down under. Riding reviews the book positively, but it's not a review filled with quotable sentences, so just read it and judge for yourself.
I was poking around for classic but perhaps now forgotten war stories and came upon this recently re-issued novel from Serpent's Tail called Her Privates We, by Frederic Manning. At the time, Ernest Hemingway called it "The finest and noblest book of men and war that I have ever read" while T.E. "Lawrence of Arabia" Lawrence" noted that "I am sure it is the book of books so far as the British Army is concerned."
The novel was originally published privately in 1929 as The Middle Parts of Fortune under the pseudonym Private 19022. The publisher notes that Her Privates We is the novel of the Battle of the Somme told from the perspective of Bourne, an ordinary private. A raw and shockingly honest portrait of men engaged in war, the original edition was subject to prunings and excisions because the bluntness of language was thought to make the book unfit for public distribution. This edition restores them. It is being championed by William Boyd, who calls it "a unique and extraordinary novel."
In this review in The Independent, David Evans explains the book's title and gives more on the book's background. He calls it "an imperishable modernist masterpiece", which is recommendation enough for me.