In Lovely War’s opening, Hephaestus traps Aphrodite and Ares in a golden net and puts them on trial for infidelity—a Homeric story, now set in WWII. Aphrodite offers as defense two pairs of lovers in WWI: Hazel and James, and Aubrey and Collette. Aphrodite demonstrates through mortal stories how essential vicissitudes are to love, and hence how she, perfect, cannot be loved. The deathless gods are shallow because death’s deadline gives life meaning.
At first, these divine narrators, with voices enjoyably clever but tinged in sarcasm, create problematic distance, except that soon, human feelings permeate the story with page-turning engagement. There’s a counterpoint between godly voice (“Hephaestus would almost worry for the Fates, but they’re tough old cookies.”) and mortal, visceral depth. Love in time of war could fall into clichés. Berry’s doesn’t. She’s masterful with dialogue of people falling in love—revealing flashes that show how well-suited they are. Hazel, a classical pianist, reveals her feelings for James, “You’re a brand-new piece of sheet music . . . for a song which, once played, I’d swear I’d always known.” He responds, “A piece of sheet music, am I? . . .Makes me rather flat, doesn’t it?” She retorts, “I prefer gentlemen who are sharp.” They “get” each other, James’s bad jokes, her affinity for music. Repeatedly, Berry reveals genuine connection.
Berry is skillful portraying war, from German-destroyed villages to trenches, as well as racial hatred within the Allied side (Aubrey’s Black). Suffering is essential to the novel’s emotional resonance. Love must endure despite the abyss of war, perhaps because of it. Berry’s historical details are compellingly accurate. Grab tissues. Happiness is tempered with nuanced reality, but the warm feelings are richer for that. Even the gods get a final twist.