We will remember them. Commemorating the First World War in fiction.
by Lucinda Byatt, M.K. Tod & Emma Cazabonne
Memory and storytelling, the art of bringing past events alive, are arguably among the most powerful drivers of historical fiction. Recent novels written about the First World War are no exception, conjuring up stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home — stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism. As we mark this year’s centenary, many readers will also return to classics, such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy,2 as well as Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong (1993). The damaging effects of war, affecting both the minds and bodies of those at the Front and the equally destructive forces faced by their loved ones and families at home, are the focus of all of these stories, old and new.3
In The Lie (Windmill Books, 2014) by Helen Dunmore, the violent effects of war are prolonged by an innocent lie. Its fatal consequences form the subject of this haunting and disturbing tale of fresh emotional damage, not on the battlefield but in a small Cornish community. With extraordinary deftness Dunmore dissects the psychological damage of the war and its effects on Daniel Branwell, a former gardener’s boy with an astonishing gift for memorising poetry. Some shared themes appear, particularly the parallel emotional responses to loss: Daniel’s to his childhood friend and “blood brother,” Frederick Dennis, whose life he almost saves, and Felicia’s to the husband she barely knew. Beyond loss, the author exposes the petty jealousies of a small community amidst post-war social change. When death comes, it appears as a relief, a reunion, while the living are left to grieve once more.
In Wake (Doubleday, 2014) Anna Hope uses a temporal constraint as the guiding thread: the story is set in November 1920, over the five days leading up to the first ever national British commemoration of the “Unknown Warrior,” an anonymous corpse retrieved from France. Hope uses this brilliant conceit to weave together the stories of three women dealing with the aftershocks of war: Ada, the grieving mother; Hettie, too young to have been directly involved but old enough to see the effects of war all around her; and Evelyn, who may finally allow hope to return to her embittered life. How each story touches on the others is wholly unexpected and revealing, and although set three years after the war, the overwhelming theme of loss is still strong, analysed through the parallel bonds of mother–son, sister–brother, lovers.
Pierre Lemaitre won the prestigious Prix Goncourt with Au revoir là-haut (Editions Albin Michel, 2013). This raw novel paints a gritty picture of postwar French society, focused on its fallen heroes and ignoring or even trying to get rid of cumbersome soldiers who barely made it. The story opens just before the Armistice and concludes a year after the end of the war. In between, the reader follows Albert and Édouard, two unforgettable characters fighting once more for life, friendship, love, and a decent future. But their efforts are threatened by the shadow of Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pardelle, a character à la Javert. More common themes emerge through the waste of millions of butchered lives, the pain and ugliness of emotional and physical injury (as in Édouard’s half-destroyed face), and the greed and corruption of military leaders. The scandalous traffic of corpses and graves is historically documented, although it was covered up by the French government in 1922. An English translation will be published by MacLehose Press in 2015.
Reading a WWI novel — The Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh Serov (Hachette Australia, 2013) — from the Russian viewpoint is a refreshing experience, and a tapestry is a suitable metaphor for the story that unfolds with characters from the wide diversity of Russian society woven together in war and revolution. After war is declared, it becomes clear that Russian generals cling to outdated military tactics and technologies, and that supply lines cannot cope with the distances involved. To make matters worse, outdated factories cause massive shortages of guns and ammunition. Although the Russian army wins some battles, most successes are quickly overthrown. Then, as workers strike and protesters take to the streets, the plot shifts to actions taken by the Bolshevik party to gain power and end the war. Although this multi-stranded plotting occasionally confuses, the ending is very satisfying.
In A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith (Random House, 2014), Cora Blake and a group of American Gold Star Mothers cross the Atlantic to visit their sons’ graves. We follow Cora, Bobbie, Katie, Wilhelmina, and Minnie along with their ‘handlers,’ a young lieutenant and a nurse on contract to the army. Smith rounds out the cast with General Perkins, a taskmaster, and Grif Reed, a former journalist severely wounded during the war. While early chapters are slow, the pace accelerates when the women arrive in New York, and bits of humour add zest to the story. Verdun is where reality bites, where “instantly they were in a war zone, hardly changed since the battle of 1916” and each woman imagines her son in similar circumstances. At the end, Cora confronts General Perkins: “Wrongs cannot be righted by blood. Happiness can never be the result of senseless deaths. We mothers know.”
Martin Sutton won the 2013 Historical Novel Society International Award for his novel, Paradise Lost. With memorable characters and a fabulous choice of setting — the Heligan Gardens owned by the Tremayne family in Cornwall — this is a great read. Sutton has captured the detail of everyday life, whether at home — seen through the eyes of William Pascoe, the gardener, or Diane Luxton, Jack Tremayne’s niece — or on the battlefront. The disparity of experience on the Front is also brilliantly evoked: the horror of raids, the humour and boredom, even the ghost villages behind the line where William finds unexpected fulfilment as a talented writer. The dominating themes of class, the role of women and profound friendship are artfully incorporated in this extraordinary love story.
With a father and six uncles surviving the Great War, John Wilcox grew up with WWI hanging over his head “like a thundercloud.” His novel, Starshine (Allison & Busby, 2012), centers on two pals: Jim, who earns a DCM for his heroic efforts, and Bertie, who struggles with fear and the slaughter that surrounds them. Both men love the same woman. Beyond the notion of what enables a man to serve with courage, in Starshine Wilcox exposes the futility of so many WWI actions, the routine of trench duty, the nitty-gritty of war, and the way friendships and love kept men going. The novel is a soldier’s perspective on WWI with significant focus on battlefield strategies and tactics and the ‘human machine’ deployed against the enemy. Although some descriptions waver between fiction and nonfiction, the story propels us forward until its emotional and gripping climax.
The Storms of War (Orion, 2014), Kate Williams’s 657-page novel, creates a unique perspective on WWI, that of a well-to-do family living in England and the persecution they suffer because the father, Rudolf de Witt, is German. The story explores class tensions, the suffragette movement, shell shock, war conditions, the hatred of all things German, the nature of courage, attributes of those who excel at war, pacifist activities, homosexuality, and coming of age. While many scenes are very well written, The Storms of War spans too many plot lines and points of view to truly engage.
Jacqueline Winspear’s compelling and moving novel, The Care and Management of Lies (Allison & Busby UK, Harper Collins US, 2014), centers on four characters — Kezia, Thea, Tom, and Edmund — bound together by friendship, marriage and war. In June 1914 Kezia marries her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom, and comes to live on the Brissenden farm, which borders Edmund’s sprawling property. Tom enlists with his friends and neighbours, Edmund becomes an officer, and Thea, the suffragette and pacifist, goes overseas as an ambulance driver. Kezia, left to manage the farm, writes poignant letters to Tom sharing imaginary meals with him based on recipes from The Woman’s Book. Lies are central to Winspear’s story. Tom lies to Kezia about conditions; Edmund lies to encourage his men; Thea lies about her pacifist exploits; the brutal Sergeant Knowles lies about Tom sleeping on sentry duty, an offense punishable by death. Amidst the unrelenting horror of war what comforts Edmund, Tom, and others in their unit are Kezia’s letters embodying the taste of love and home.
Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome (The Borough Press, 2014) spans a period of almost ten years, but the story is firmly anchored in the events of WWI and its aftermath. The title sets up parallels between the women who welcome and the heroes who are welcomed. Nadine and Rose possess the empathy and sensitivity to welcome and love, in the truest sense, those who return, while beautiful Julia cannot see beyond her own needs. Riley rebuilds his life, breaking through the barriers of horrific facial disfigurement and class prejudice, while Peter cannot “just slot back in,” instead reliving his own wartime horrors night and day, an Odysseus on a becalmed ship. The Heroes’ Welcome focuses on change — the physical reconstruction of Riley’s face and Julia’s emotional growth — yet below society’s superficial changes, its “architecture” remains the same.
These ten novels commemorating the centennial of WWI remind us of the inhumanity and folly of that ‘war to end all wars.
1. Lawrence Binyon’s well-known poem, “The Fallen,” was published in The Times on 21 September 1914.
2. The trilogy appeared in the 1990s: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
3. This selection of recent books and their themes are briefly examined in alphabetical order, by author.
About the contributors: Visit LUCINDA BYATT at A World of Words, www.lucindabyatt.com. M.K. TOD blogs about all aspects of historical fiction at A Writer of History, www.awriterofhistory.com, and her second novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France. EMMA CAZABONNE blogs at Words and Peace, www.wordsandpeace.com and on Twitter, @wordsandpeace.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 69, August 2014