The Verdun Affair

Written by Nick Dybek
Review by Valerie Adolph

This novel switches back and forth between California in 1950 and France and Italy as they recover from war in 1921. The title refers to what became known as ‘The Verdun Affair’ – a World War I military disaster where it is said that 250,000 men were killed. In the novel, it is also a town that sees the start of a romantic affair.

In 1921, the protagonist, officially an aide to the bishop of Verdun, is a bone collector. It is his job to search the countryside around Verdun for any human bones remaining from the battles so they can be commemorated in an ossuary. Seldom is there anything to indicate the name or nationality of the soldier whose remains are found. They are just anonymous bones.

Yet families come from all over France and beyond with sad tales and always the same question: “Have you seen him?” It would be unethical to give false hope, but cruel to tell the truth. A woman comes from the US with just such a question, and it leads to Italy, to two men who are in love with her, and to an amnesiac hospital patient who may or may not be her husband.

While there are obvious comparisons to The English Patient, this book seems to be an extended metaphor showing how relationships, loves even, can be shattered beyond all recognition, just as a human body can be obliterated. The author effectively communicates the spirit of place and time. He also has a knack for sharing the feelings and intentions behind quite ordinary conversations. The strength of this book lies in the first chapters set in Verdun. The powerful images of post-war suffering eclipse the image of long-dead romances.