All this mud and water was contaminated. Dung and debris and decaying bodies lay beneath its surface. When the rivers and canals could no longer be contained — over they spilled into clyttes already awash with rain.
Houses, trees and fields of flax once flourished here. Summers had been blue with flowers. Now it was a shallow sea of stinking grey from end to end. And this is where you fought the war.
(from The Wars, page 78 in the old hardcover edition I read, whose cover I couldn’t find online)
The Wars is a 1977 novel of the Great War by Timothy Findley that follows Robert Ross, a Canadian who enlists as an officer in 1915 after the death of his disabled sister. The novel opens toward the end of Robert’s story. The world is on fire, and Robert is leading hundreds of horses away from the front. Readers soon learn that Robert has possibly gone mad, and Findley brings them back to the beginning to piece together the events that led to that moment.
The Wars has an odd structure. Robert and his family are introduced and his wartime activities are uncovered partly through photos and interview transcripts as an unnamed writer or historian (called “you” in the narrative) researches his life. The rest of his story is told through a choppy, disjointed, non-linear narrative. Findley basically writes a series of scenes chronicling the major events that defined Robert’s life and paved the way for him becoming a tragic hero — from his relationship with his sister, Rowena, to his experience with the horses on the troop ship to England to a chlorine gas attack while he and his men are trapped in a crater.
Findley introduces readers to an assortment of characters, including Robert’s alcoholic mother; Harris, a fellow soldier with whom a friendship leans toward love; Barbara, a young aristocrat who trades in her soldier boyfriends as soon as they are injured; and Juliet, a 12-year-old girl who falls in love with Robert during a stay at her family home. However, except for Robert, the characters are mostly flat, the sparse narrative making it difficult for readers to really get to know them.
The Wars is an interesting war story, focusing on a single soldier amidst the chaos during which thousands upon thousands perished. The novel shines in its descriptions of life in the trenches, futile missions that have no chance of success, and one man’s desire to do what he feels is right…no matter the cost. Despite a structure that was difficult to get used to, Findley succeeds in showing the insanity inherent in war and how it can transform men into murderers. Life goes on while the men are fighting on the front, underscored by Robert’s mother’s disintegration upon the death of her daughter and her son going off to war.
I finished the book not really knowing what to make of it, but in the days since I turned the last page, I find myself contemplating it and liking it more. Findley made me want to know what happened with the horses from the very beginning, and as piece after piece of Robert’s story fell into place, the more I could understand his transformation. It definitely isn’t the best World War I novel I’ve read, but it’s certainly worth giving a try.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Wars from the public library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.