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Posts Tagged ‘literature and war read-a-long’

When they came into their trench he felt small enough.  The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing was a man.  Bombs not so far off distressed the earth of Belgium, disgorged great heaps of it, and did everything except kill him immediately, as he half expected them to do.

(from A Long Long Way, page 24)

Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long Way centers on Willie Dunne, a young man from Dublin who is just 18 years old when he signs up to fight in World War I at its outbreak in 1914.  The son of a policeman, Dunne could not follow in his father’s footsteps because he never grew to the required height of 6 feet, so he sets out to prove himself as a soldier.  Before leaving for the trenches in Belgium, Willie meets Gretta and falls in love, but she refuses to marry him until he knows his own mind.

With Gretta, his father, and his three younger sisters never far from his mind, Willie goes off to war.  He survives a poison gas attack — something the soldiers had never expected or ever witnessed — by running away, and he soon endures the pain of losing his comrades as hundreds and even thousands of men are wiped out in individual battles.

After enjoying a brief leave in 1916, Willie is on his way back to the front lines when a skirmish erupts in Dublin, and in the uniform of the English army, he is called upon to fight the rebels.  At first, he thinks the Germans have invaded, but then he realizes the rebels are his fellow Irishmen.  Confused about the politics in his own country and caught between the Great War and the struggle for Irish independence, Willie is not sure where his loyalties lie.  He is fighting to save Europe, but his uniform ends up separating him from his fellow countrymen, and his sadness about the executions following the Easter Rising angers his father.

When I finished A Long Long Way, five words came to mind when I though about how to describe this novel:  loyalties, confusion, innocence, horror, and loss.  Willie certainly is innocent when he first goes off to fight, innocent about politics, war, and even women.  He is confused about what’s going on in Ireland, and I can’t say I was any more enlightened than he was given that Barry writes as though the reader already has an understanding of the country’s history.  Willie definitely witnesses the horror of combat and knows the emptiness of loss on the battlefield and in his personal life.

Barry creates intriguing secondary characters in Christy Moran, a foul-mouthed but likeable sergeant-major with whom Willie serves, Pete O’Hara, whose story about a Belgian nun is horrifying, and Father Buckley, who put himself in danger to minister to the dying and the dead.  Barry also brilliantly describes the gas attacks, from the chaos to the fear.  Willie was an endearing and sympathetic character, and I though Barry did a great job making him real in that no matter how many times he faced death, he nearly always peed himself in fear.  Even the bravest soldiers are scared, and that comes through in this novel.

However, I wasn’t impressed with Barry’s writing style at the beginning.  It took me about five or six chapters to really get involved in the story, and even then I’d come across some descriptions I found to be too much, such as “daybreak like a row of sparkling dinner-knives” (page 105).  Moreover, I disliked the ending a great deal, as it felt like Barry backed himself into a corner, didn’t know how to get out, and saw fit to bayonet the unsuspecting reader.

Where A Long Long Way succeeds is in its portrayal of a divided Ireland and the tale of a young man not sure where he fits in.  It’s a coming of age story of a soldier who outlives most of his comrades and is an old man by the time he turns 21.  Barry doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of the soldiers in the trenches or the brutal and tragic deaths that many men faced when they went over the top.  Willie Dunne indeed travels “a long long way” both in the course of the war and on an internal path toward knowing his own mind.  A Long Long Way is an interesting introduction to the battle for Irish independence and a chilling account of the trenches of World War I.

I read A Long Long Way for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

Book 4 for the WWI Reading Challenge

Book 7 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed A Long Long Way from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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‘How about it Suguro?’  His rimless glasses shining, Asai leaned his face close.  ‘You’re perfectly free, you know.  Really.’

Afterwards, the short, plump medical officer had returned to the room and laughed, ‘The bastards, what did they do but bomb indiscriminately?  They’ve already been sentenced to be shot by the Western Command.  Wherever they’re executed it’s the same.  Why, here they’ll get ether and die in their sleep!’

(from The Sea and Poison, page 76 — I read a different version than pictured.  I couldn’t find an image of the old hardcover from the library.)

The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo was first published in 1958.  The novel takes place in Japan during World War II at Fukuoka Medical School and is told from a few different viewpoints but mainly follows Suguro and his interactions with fellow intern Toda, and the few doctors and nurses with whom he works.  Suguro treats tuberculosis patients, and he shows compassion for a dying elderly woman and is conflicted when the doctors plan to do an experimental surgery that they know will kill her, all in the name of research.

‘Oh come off it!  Killing a patient isn’t so solemn a matter as all that.  It’s nothing new in the world of medicine.  That’s how we’ve made our progress!  Right now in the city all kinds of people are dying all the time in the air raids, and nobody thinks twice about it.  Rather than have the old lady die in an air raid, why not kill her here at the hospital.  There’d be some meaning in that, boy!’  (page 51)

The Sea and Poison is a hard book to describe because its structure is very odd, and for that reason alone, I didn’t really like the book.  It opens with a prologue in which readers are introduced to a man living in a suburb of Tokyo who needs pneumothorax treatments.  Suguro is the only doctor in the community, but he strikes the man as very odd…and then he learns the truth about Suguro and his involvement in war crimes committed at the medical school.  When he confronts Suguro about it, the book then shifts to the past when Suguro is working at the hospital and tells the story from his viewpoint in the third person.  The book later shifts to the first person to tell the story of a nurse, Ueda, and then in the following chapter to the first person viewpoint of the other intern, Toda, before returning the the third person and Suguro.  Endo never comes full circle to revisit the man from the prologue, and the two chapters in the first-person narrative showcase Ueda’s failed marriage and events from Toda’s school days, rather than their work in the hospital.

The introduction to the characters through their work in the tuberculosis sanatorium shows how they are numb or unfeeling or pushed along a path they don’t necessarily want to take or simply seeking career advancement.  The hospital is not what we would consider a hygienic environment, which could be related to the era in which it takes place or the culture or both, and the doctors have a horrible bedside manner.  The patients, particularly the welfare patients, are viewed as burdens or possible research subjects that could lead to a promotion for the doctors.  But with all of this, Endo is merely warming up.

Suguro, Toda, and Ueda are all asked by the head physicians to participate in some important research that will involve the vivisection of eight American POWs.  With the tuberculosis patients, one could argue that the research was justified because they were going to die anyway, but now you’re talking eight, healthy young men who will be brutally killed for the sake of science and the furthering of these doctors’ careers.  The three of them are asked — not forced — to take part, and they all agree, though Suguro has some reservations.

Endo based The Sea and Poison on a true incident that took place in 1945 at Kyushu Imperial University, but there was no mention of the historical incidents in the version of the book I read.  Halfway through the book, I was wondering where it was going, so I started to do some research online and was horrified by what I found.

The book opened my eyes to another aspect of World War II that I hadn’t known about before, but it was a challenging read.  The structure was confusing at times, and I’m sure some things are lost in the translation from the Japanese.  There isn’t anything special or lyrical about the writing.  However, it is short, not overly graphic (though some descriptions made me squeamish), and interesting in that it generates much thought and discussion about medical ethics, guilt, and conscience.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Sea and Poison from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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In Trafalgar Square, the crowd hears the measured sound of the horses’ hooves and then, at last, sees their black forms surfacing through the mist.  And now men weep openly, unashamed, while the anguished cries of women pierce the air as the uncontrollable glut of grief begins to spread out, from the heaving capital to its suburbs, toward the villages, the towns, and the other cities, on to the country and the coast.

But nowhere is it felt more than at the heart of England, in London, among those who line the streets to watch the cortege go by.  For they have come from near and far, from every corner of the kingdom, to witness the laying to rest of the man who belongs to all of them and none of them — the soldier without a name who has been lifted from the battlefield to be buried among kings: the Unknown Warrior.

(from The Winter of the World, page eight)

The Winter of the World is an ambitious World War I novel by Carol Ann Lee, who tells the story of Alex Dyer, a journalist who gets as close to the battles as possible and does all he can to get past the censors so that the people back home in England know the truth.  When the book opens in 1920, Alex is a broken man, wracked with guilt about the fact that he and the wife of his best friend, Ted, fell in love and carried on an affair while Ted fought on the front lines.  Much of the story is told from Alex’s point of view in dialogue, as he spills out his troubles to Lombardi, who is part of a gardening crew tasked with filling in the trenches and turning the battlefields of Flanders into proper cemeteries.

Lee begins The Winter of the World with the procession of the Unknown Warrior, an unknown British soldier whose body was taken from the battlefields of France and entombed in Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.  From there, Lee takes readers on a journey of the battlefields and the trenches as Alex tells his story to Lombardi.  The narrative moves back and forth in time during the war and shifts from Alex’s point of view to that of Clare, Ted’s wife, a nurse stationed in France.  This structure is a little confusing at times, but the date and place are given at the beginning of each section in an effort to ease the transitions.

I had mixed feelings about this book, mainly because the storyline involving Alex and Clare’s affair was pretty weak and at times felt forced.  Alex and Clare fall in love at first sight before she is to marry Ted, yet she goes through with the wedding, and the three go their separate ways as war breaks out.  Clare is a compelling character, a woman struggling to find a foothold after emerging from a troubled childhood.  I never felt certain of her feelings for either Ted or Alex, but her strength is revealed when we see her in action as a nurse and that more than makes up for the problems in her private life.

I enjoyed (though maybe that’s not the best choice of word given the subject matter of the novel) the scenes told from Clare’s point of view, how she manages to take care of the wounded soldiers in horrid conditions and how she tenderly reaches out to a young boy emasculated by shrapnel and a veteran whose facial disfigurement causes the woman he loves to break their engagement.  Lee’s inclusion of historical information, such as advancements in plastic surgery intended to help veterans reclaim their lives after the war, was much more interesting than the love triangle.  The scenes in which Alex visits the trenches and the battlefields really underscore the gruesome aspects of war and give readers an understanding of the horrid conditions the soldiers endured, the consequences of new weaponry, the huge number of dead soldiers buried in the battlefields, and the destruction of the landscape during the war.

Lee’s writing is beautiful, making it easy to keep reading even when I found the romantic exploits of the characters distracting.  However, I kept wondering where the story was leading, until Lee uses a coincidental meeting to further the plot along.  I can’t say anything because I don’t want to give away the ending, but once the point of the novel became obvious, it felt like the story dragged when I just wanted to find out how the characters would react and fare in the end.

I wasn’t too keen on the transitions back and forth in time, and I would have liked the story more if it had been told in a linear fashion as the events occurred, not with Alex simply recounting events in a conversation.  However, I thought it was a worthwhile read overall and would recommend it to fans of war novels.  The Winter of the World is well-written and shines with its descriptions of the trenches and the physical and emotional impact of war, and Lee’s descriptions of plastic surgery and the mystery of the Unknown Warrior make it worth giving a try.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Winter of the World from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the essential and the irritating.  I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him.  But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.

(from The Return of the Soldier, pages 129-130 — the version I read was published in 1918 and very brittle, and I couldn’t find the book cover image online)

The Return of the Soldier, first published in 1918, was the first novel about World War I written by a woman.  Rebecca West tells the story of a young English soldier suffering from shell shock, with a focus on the three women he loves.  No one knows the horrors Chris Baldry witnessed in France because he doesn’t remember them.  In fact, he doesn’t remember anything from the last 15 years — not even his wife, Kitty.  Kitty finds out about her husband’s condition from a poor innkeeper’s daughter who knew Chris when they were young — a woman Chris believes he still loves.

When Chris returns to the family’s estate — a home that his wife and his cousin, Jenny, have turned into a sort of castle for him, a place where he should know nothing but happiness despite the death of his son five years earlier — he can’t deal with the changes.   Jenny, the book’s first-person narrator, recognizes his longing for the past and laments the loss of their close friendship, which may have been more than that on her part.  Chris insists that he must see Margaret, the woman from his past, who is now married, causing Kitty to become cold and withdrawn.  Jenny acknowledges Kitty’s shallowness, but even she is guilty of class discrimination, constantly describing Margaret’s shabby appearance as “offensive.”

The Return of the Soldier hardly mentions the war, other than Jenny’s nightmares about Chris in No-Man’s Land and her worries that he will be sent back to the front if he regains his memory.  It is such a short novel, and much of it is devoted to Jenny’s observations of the landscape, Chris and Margaret’s rekindled relationship, and efforts to help Chris remember the life he has with Kitty and Jenny.  West gives readers much to contemplate, and Margaret’s struggle between helping Chris remember his wife and wanting to hold on to him again was emotional.

Although I found the story itself interesting, I must admit that if it hadn’t been so short and I hadn’t been reading it for the Literature and War Readalong, I probably would have abandoned it after the first 20 pages.  West’s writing just didn’t grab me, and I moved from finding her words poetic and beautiful (“Birds sat on the telegraph wires that spanned the river as the black notes sit on a staff of music.” page 76) to dozing off while reading lengthy descriptions that I found somewhat boring.  I was intrigued by the fact that this was the first WWI novel written by a woman and that it aimed to cover so much, from shell shock and the women left at home to class differences, but I think I longed for more scenes with Chris, and I wanted to feel more connected to the female characters.  That’s the limitation of the first person point of view; we are only able to get to know the characters by what Jenny wishes to reveal.  Moreover, the ending just didn’t feel authentic to me, and readers are removed from the events that occur.  It ends rather abruptly, and my immediate thought was “Seriously?!?”

However, what I did like about The Return of the Soldier is it really makes you think about the characters and their motivations.  It’s complex in that West doesn’t just lay it out there; you have to read between the lines, work through Jenny’s observations, and ponder them to understand the responsibilities thrown upon Chris when his father died and the importance of the women in his life.  There’s very little said about Chris and Kitty’s son, so you have to really think about how his death has affected them.  West also tackles the idea of true love and how time can take a toll on people but someone in love wouldn’t notice.  So even though I wasn’t wowed by this novel, it might be worth giving a try.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Return of the Soldier from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Looking back it all seems idyllic, but I’m sure that we had our ugly moments as well as our beautiful ones.  Real friendship admits recognition of the ugly as well as the beautiful.  I remember the moments that snatched me from the passive solitude of my normal life, warned me of the pleasure and the fear of living.

(from How Many Miles to Babylon?)

Set in Ireland and Flanders during World War I, How Many Miles to Babylon? is a story of friendship.  Jennifer Johnston writes about two young men first divided by class, then divided by rank.  Alexander Moore is the son of a wealthy Irish farmer, and Jerry Crowe is a peasant.  The two bond over their love of swimming and horses, and their friendship blossoms until Alec’s mother reminds him of his position as a member of the upper class.  Alec’s parents are a piece of work; whatever love they might have had for one another is long gone.  His mother must get her way all the time, and his sickly father will speak up for a moment, then recede into the background.

Jerry decides to enlist in the British army because his family could use the money, and Alec enlists at the same time because his mother insists that he must.  Alec becomes a junior officer and soon learns that his friendship with Jerry is considered inappropriate by his superiors.  Despite Major Glendinning’s insistence that he will make a man of Alec, the two continue their friendship in the trenches and still dream of running a horse farm together one day.

First published in 1974, How Many Miles to Babylon? is very short but takes time to get moving.  The first half of the book introduces readers to Alec and describes his strained relationship with his parents and his budding friendship with Jerry.  The latter half of the novel takes place at the front in Flanders, where Jerry takes drastic action after receiving a letter from home and Alec struggles under the cold and oppressive Major Glendinning.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is not a novel solely about the war.  Even when Johnston describes the harsh conditions of the trenches, the constant shelling and the chilblains, readers will feel removed from the action.  With World War I in the background, Johnston touches upon Irish history, particular the tensions between the Irish and the British.  Through Jerry’s revolutionary leanings and the harsh comments about the Irish made by Major Glendinning, Johnston hints at the coming battle for Irish independence.

Alec, the narrator, is a very passive character for most of the book.  Just like his father, he submits to his mother’s every demand.  When she tell him that he has to go to war, he protests that he has no desire to fight or be killed, but he ends up doing what she expects of him anyway.  In contrast, Jerry is more of a free spirit, making his own decision to go to war and speaking out when he should keep his mouth shut.  With Alec as narrator, the book moves a bit slowly, possibly because I didn’t have any strong feelings for him until the very end.  Still, there’s a beauty to Johnston’s prose that kept me glued to the page.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is one of those novels that hits you hard at the end.  I was never entirely sure where the book was going, and when it got there, I was simply stunned.  The ending says so much about the characters, and it was both a satisfying end to the journey and one that left me wanting to know what happened next.  Johnston surprised me and made me cry.  I’ll certainly be thinking about this book for awhile.

Disclosure: I borrowed How Many Miles to Babylon? from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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‘Most of it comes about just like that.’  Hilliard snapped his fingers.  He thought of the deaths and injuries he had seen, not in battle but caused by the single, random bullet, by a careless accident, by sheer bad luck.  One shell coming out of nowhere, through the blue sky of a May morning, singing down into a corner of a trench where Higgins was frying bacon and talking to a couple of men from Glazier’s platoon.  All killed.  Then nothing more that day, only the warm sunshine and the ordinary jobs.  Sergeant Carson had had his arms blown off demonstrating a new type of hand grenade at the Training Camp.  So many pointless, messy, inglorious deaths, ‘just like that.’  He resented them more than anything.

(from Strange Meeting, page 71 in the hardcover version, for which I could not find a cover image)

Strange Meeting is a novel set during World War I that was originally published in 1971, and if it hadn’t been for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, I would have missed out on a fantastic war novel.  Susan Hill’s writing is beautiful, with undertones of darkness and despair that push the horrors and the senselessness of war to the forefront.

Hill tells the story of John Hilliard, a British lieutenant, who readers first meet as he prepares to go back to the front after being wounded.  He spends some time in England with his family, but after all he has seen, he is plagued by nightmares, cannot stand to be at home, and feels a need to go back to the war.  Upon his return to France, he learns that many of his friends and fellow soldiers have been lost on the battlefield, and he meets a junior officer, David Barton, who has yet to see any action.  Barton’s optimism and happiness seem out of place in the midst of war, but his presence at the rest camp, his charm, his incessant chat about his family, and his practice of writing and sharing long letters to and from his family lift the men’s spirits.

Hilliard and Barton strike up a close friendship, with Barton becoming the listening ear Hilliard so desperately needs.  Hilliard’s family is cold and distant, but Barton’s is warm and loving and accepts Hilliard without having met him, reaching out to him through letters.  Barton’s influence on Hilliard is striking, and Hilliard’s feelings for Barton are so strong that he wants so very much to protect Barton from the death and destruction he will experience first-hand in the trenches.

The swiftness and strength of their friendship is understandable given the pressures of the war and the close quarters of the trenches, and because they are polar opposites, it is easy to see how they are good for each other.  Hill writes with a fondness and tenderness for these characters, and her portrayal of two men who love one another (not romantically…at least I didn’t take it that way) feels authentic under the circumstances.  She shows men who are both brave and scared and who turn to one another so that they do not feel alone in such a dark moment in their lives.

While much of the story centers on Hilliard’s and Barton’s friendship, it is a war story, and in the build up to a major battle, the men have some deep discussions about war, death, guilt, and all that goes along with seeing countless men fall to an unseen enemy.  One of the most interesting passages comes from a letter written by Barton to his family about the impact of war on the environment.

It is so easy to destroy landscape, it takes a couple of days of really bad fighting and strafing, plus this rain, to turn what was beautiful (in spite of the war and everything littered about) into the most frightful scarred waste.  I feel we shall have this on our consciences every bit as much as the deaths of men.  What right have we to do such damage to the earth?  After all, you may say that man can do what he likes with himself but he should not involve the innocent natural world.  John disagrees, he says that a tree grows again and grass covers the craters in no time, but a man is dead, is dead, is dead.  (page 184)

Strange Meeting is a slow-moving but beautifully written novel that takes readers into the trenches, lets them feel the tension and the damp and the intense noise of shells and guns.  Hill shows both the beauty of war in Barton’s romanticizing of battle and the reality of the killing with Hilliard’s voice of experience.  While much of the story is told from Hilliard’s point of view, Hill merges the viewpoints of both men seamlessly — the two opposites coming together in friendship, touching their lives in ways that could never be forgotten.  Although somewhat predictable, Strange Meeting is a moving story about youth and experience, despair and hope, and friendship and love.

Disclosure: I borrowed Strange Meeting from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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