Tuesday, November 11, 2014

1914: A Rapidfire Tour of Some of the Best World War I Fiction (So Far...)

There's no way to escape it. This has been the big centenary year, in which the world marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the Great War that shaped the world that we live in. The war and its end helped ensure that women got the vote; it introduced cake to Japan. It made passports ubiquitous, along with machine guns. The word "genocide" became part of the vocabulary, thanks to the Turkish genocidal attacks on their Armenian population in 1915. (Yes, another anniversary looms.) The way was made clear for fascism and for the conflicts that still divide the Middle East today. It reshaped popular culture, and catapulted modernism into the mainstream. Cartoons, barbed wire, sunlamps and wristwatches were born.

Another season of Downton Abbey on television this fall will remind us of some of this again, as its characters grapple to live in a post-World War 1 universe. Then, too, there have been today's Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day services, marking the anniversary of the hour and the day that the guns finally fell silent, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

So, you'd like to read more about this, but are averse to the required texts (All Quiet on the Western Front was great in high school, but really...) and don't want to delve into military histories or other dense non-fiction tomes? Here are some suggestions. Not all of them are new. Indeed, in some places, I've deliberately avoided books that already get a lot of attention (like the two mysteries series penned by the mother/son writing duo, 'Charles Todd') in favor of others that might be slightly more off the radar. All of them are worth seeking out, for one reason or another.

Pat Barker
Sure, it's literary fiction -- but it's also one of the finest antiwar novels ever penned. What is real madness, the willful waste of millions of lives in the trenches, accomplishing nothing, or attempts to restore to sanity the shell-shocked men at institutions like Craiglockhart, so that they can be returned to the carnage? Those are some of the themes; readers will meet poets Wilfred Owen and Siefried Sassoon here as characters in one of the most elegantly-written novels I've ever encountered.

The Passing Bells
Phillip Rock
This will appeal to anyone who loves/d Downton Abbey. Like the television series, it's an upstairs/downstairs family saga, revolving around an English earl and his American-born countess. Originally published in the late 1970s (I first read it in the 1980s), the tale of Abingdon Pryory and the Greville family precedes that of the Downton clan, however. Main characters include the son and heir, Charles Greville, infatuated with a glamorous and unsuitable woman and soon to face shellshock, and the countess's American nephew, who will become a journalist and fall in love with the Greville housemaid, Ivy. Barriers between the classes crumble as Ivy and the daughter of the house, Alexandra, find themselves nursing side by side. And if you like this, it's the first in a series of three books.

Night Shall Overtake Us
Kate Saunders
A conventional chick lit format -- four close friends set to tackle the world and help each other realize their hearts' desires. Of course, it's 1914, not 2014, and this novel follows the four young women as they struggle not only with love but death. It's predictable enough, but engaging and well-written for its genre. Solid romantic fiction.

Three Day Road
Joseph Boyden
The Canadian Army trained two young Cree men, Xavier and Elijah, to be deadly sharpshooters, but not how to live with the consequences of their actions. The aftermath of war's brutality is brought to life in this brilliant novel, told through the eyes of a clan elder as she takes one of the young men, grievously wounded and addicted to morphine, slowly homeward, perhaps to die -- the journey of the title. We learn his life story in an almost hallucinatory series of morphine-fueled flashbacks as she paddles the canoe steadily onward. Not to be missed.

Anna Hope
Perhaps the newest book on the list, more to be praised for what it tries to do than for what it ends up achieving. It's set in the aftermath of the war, as the city of London readies itself for the burial of the unknown soldier and the Remembrance Day services. Three different women face questions about the fate of loved ones and about the need to build some kind of future in a strange new postwar world without them. It does feel somewhat disjointed at times, but it is a reminder that this postwar world was largely devoid of young men -- or at least, of physically and mentally intact young men.

Dead Man's Land
Robert Ryan
If you live in the United States, you may have to go to Amazon.co.uk or to BookDepository.com in search of this book, but you may also be glad that you did. It's the first in a planned trilogy set in World War I and featuring Dr. Watson, of Holmes-and-Watson fame. This time, it's up to Watson to figure out who is committing grisly murders in the Ypres Salient -- and does anyone really care, when so much state-sanctioned murder is taking place? Well, Watson does. It's very suspenseful, even if you may have to suspend your critical faculties in one or two places. I couldn't put it down, and I'm looking forward eagerly to book #2. Holmes is a presence in the background, and there's a plot element involving early blood transfusion techniques, too.

The Flowers of the Field
Sarah Harrison
Another trilogy, and another upstairs/downstairs book with themes revolving around the ways that war shakes up society. The Tennant sisters -- Dulcie and Thea -- and their former housemaid, Primmy, find the war forces them to reevaluate relationships and priorities. It's a "chunkster", weighing in at 750 odd pages, but if you're fond of epics and sagas (think, Ken Follett), you'll love it.

Gossip from the Forest

Thomas Keneally
Back to the literary fiction front. Keneally grabbed the spotlight last year with Daughters of Mars (which I loved), but prior to that he had written this heartbreaking novel about the days and hours leading up to the November 11 Armistice, showing how the Germans had collapsed into chaos and how the idea of 'negotiations' was simply laughable. The portrayal of the principal German player -- all too aware of the seeds being sown for a future war -- was unbelievably poignant. Stylistically different, perhaps, but only a smidgen, and well worth it.

A Very Long Engagement
Sebastien Japrisot
You may have caught the movie; now you can read the book (which is much better). Mathilde is stubbornly determined to understand exactly what happened to her fiancé in the war, and the series of investigations and discoveries is spread over many years, unfolding slowly, just as the war's consequences have done.

I'm sure there are many more -- this is only a small cross-section of what is out there. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth? The Wars by Timothy Findley? Ernest Hemingway's novels? Mark Helprin's writing? Novels by Anita Shreve, Michael Morpurgo or John Boyne? John Buchan's thrillers featuring Richard Hannay, or Anne Perry's short series of World War I mysteries? My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, that everyone has been telling me I need to read? What's your favorite tale about the Great War?

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