Smith’s hefty and entirely impressive debut novel, 1914, dramatizes the cataclysmic opening year of the First World War through the viewpoints of a small cast of characters carefully chosen to show many sides of the conflict. This is an old and oft-used fictional technique, and Smith employs it with panoramic skill, as the news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand breaks into the separate worlds of such characters as American aeronautics pioneer Gordon Graham, best friends Percy Ward and Arthur Ellis, British enlisted man Vernon Hayes and his wife, German lance-corporal Gefreiter Hentsch, French enlisted man Denis Roux, and half a dozen others.
Through the lens of these characters, we see all the follies and tragedies of the war, from the hopeful belief that it would be “over by Christmas” to the grinding misery of warfare at the Front, and Smith invests his actors with such fallible, three-dimensional (and more than occasionally maddening) personalities that they propel the narrative even past the blocks of exposition that are unavoidable in a novel of this size and scope.
Smith’s ear for dialogue is extremely sharp, and his flair for pacing keeps this long novel from sagging at any point. Here, at the 100-year anniversary of the Great War’s beginning comes a heartfelt and truly memorable novel about the war’s horrific opening months. Very strongly recommended.