Daniel Robinson’s Death of a Century continues fiction’s commemoration of World War I
The First World War stands out as a subject for poignant novels of appalling conditions and senseless slaughter, of tragic loss and lives forever and devastatingly altered. 2014 saw many books and articles published to commemorate this war, and the Historical Novel Society was no exception with We Will Remember Them: Commemorating the First World War in Fiction. Death of a Century, the latest novel by Daniel Robinson, shows that the trend is set to continue.
Robinson situates Joe Henry, a war veteran, as a newspaperman whose friend, Wynton Gresham, is writing a book about the battle of Champagne. When Gresham is murdered, suspicion falls on Joe and the mystery of who was the real killer and why Gresham’s manuscript is missing forms the backbone of the story’s many twists and turns.
Beyond good storytelling, what is the point of such novels? Jerome de Groot lectures on Renaissance Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. In his book The Historical Novel, he examines the development of historical fiction along with its relationship and purpose in the wider cultural sphere. According to de Groot, history interests people more as the “unfolding of moral and cultural developments” than as the “mere enumeration of facts”.
The period leading up to 1914 was one of social and cultural upheaval where women fought for emancipation (The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear) and the poor supported the union movement’s call for fairer wages and working conditions (The Shadows of War by Stewart Binns). Moreover, the aristocracy faced difficult times as fortunes failed and the younger generation rejected the stifling restrictions of that society (Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson).
With its focus on people both famous and fictional, historical fiction offers an analysis of human character such that readers can “re-experience the social and human motives” that led men and women to think, feel and act as they did in past times. Death of a Century’s hero, Joe Henry, and the former soldiers he encounters during the novel are scarred by “a war fought to end all wars except those still fought in the spectral memories of young men.” Reading stories like this, we appreciate the dreadful consequences of war for the men, women and families who survived and attempted to carry on after it ended.
Through fiction we experience heroism and cowardice, learn what enables men and women to serve with courage, discover the futility of wars like World War I and the politics and greed that fuel war. We learn of severe shortages of guns, ammunition, food, and basic necessities and of strained supply lines that left soldiers and medical personnel helplessly at risk. As Starshine author John Wilcox wrote, World War I was “a game of chess with human pawns.”
Historical fiction offers a unique educational quotient not typically found in contemporary fiction. For example, Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh Serov brings the eastern front to life, while Glory by Rachel Binnington reveals the fateful campaign at Gallipoli. Many novels describe the British experience in the opening months of the war along with the horrifying conditions and appalling circumstances of battles around Ypres and the Somme. Death of a Century joins other recent novels set in these battle zones, such as Starshine by John Wilcox and The First of July by Elizabeth Speller.
Fiction brings the soul-destroying experience of World War I battlefields to life for present-day readers, subtly, or not so subtly, urging us to ask questions about today’s military conflicts. In Death of a Century, Daniel Robinson writes:
“Men and parts of men flying in slow motion through the smoke-hazed morning to land in small and large splashes within the muddy and water-filled hollows from old bomb shells. Holes opened inside the middle of men’s bodies as they ran and some fell as though tripping when they suddenly lost the lower portion of a leg. A man, his jaw shot off, walked dumbly across the pockmarked landscape, arms limp and useless, his eyes speaking a horrible language.”
De Groot also suggests that the historical novel can explore the ways “nations, and therefore national identity, are constructed.” Countries like Canada, Australia, and the United States played heroic roles in the conflict and many authors have described them. Canadian experiences are acknowledged in novels like Deafening by Frances Itani, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by PS Duffy and Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Australian experiences come to life in The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally and Seasons of War by Christopher Lee. Stories of American participation emerge in novels like Robinson’s Death of a Century, as well as A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith, Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos, and To The Last Man by Jeff Shaara. The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes gives readers a French view of war, while the celebrated All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque brings us a German perspective.
Historical fiction helps us retain, explore, appreciate, reflect on, and understand the past. The lessons of World War I are as relevant today as they were one hundred years ago and when we read novels like Death of a Century, we are reminded poignantly of these lessons.
About the contributor: M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in World War I France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.