In Love and War

Written by Liz Trenow

In July 1919, three women converge upon Hoppestadt, a Belgian village just behind the former Western Front. Shy Englishwoman Ruby has come at the behest of her parents-in-law, hoping to find her husband’s grave. Brash American Alice is convinced that she might find her brother still alive, while German Martha and her son Otto are there to fulfil a promise to her dead husband. But none of them finds what she expected…

I had high hopes for this book. The premise—of using early battlefield tours to explore themes of grief and reconciliation—sounded intriguing and, judging from the cover quotations, Trenow is highly thought of. Unfortunately, I felt she sacrificed depth for breadth in spreading herself so thinly between three protagonists. I never felt I got to know them enough to immerse myself in their emotions, and at times it felt a bit like writing-by-numbers: one Brit, one American, one German—check. One widow, one sister, one mother—check. Desertion—check. Shell-shock—check. There is an over-reliance on coincidence, and I would have welcomed more psychological complexity in the other characters’ reactions to the Germans.

The novel is also littered with historical errors. Only officers’ families received telegrams from the War Office: other ranks got letters. Germany was involved in several wars during the 19th century, but the Crimean wasn’t one of them. I’m not sure if Trenow is aware that theoretically suicide was illegal in the UK until 1961, or that malnourished children suffer from stunted growth and delayed puberty, or that at its largest the Suffolk Regiment consisted of 12 battalions, so the chances of two random men from the same regiment knowing one another are infinitesimally small. I’m sure other readers will love it, but I was disappointed at this missed opportunity.