I bought this book nearly 10 years ago now, when I went into Waterstone’s to buy two other books. They had an offer on at the time and with the two books I wanted in hand I browsed though the other books looking for a third to make my purchase qualify. At the time there was a display of books marking the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, this book grabbed my attention as it had had some publicity, although it was about WWI not WWII. I took it home and put in on my pile of books to read, but somehow it never made it to the top, eventually in some tidy up or other getting put away in the bookshelves. So when *B* suggested we read it at the Book Group I was delighted to dust it off and finally get around to reading it.
The first part was something of a surprise, in it we were introduced to the central character Stephen, but it was not what I had expected at all, there was no war, no gore, no accounts of trench warfare, it is a touching and beautifully written story about passion and forbidden love, one which could have easily stood by itself as a short novel at just over 100 pages.
The second part propelled me into what I had expected with the rest of the book was also peppered with accounts of those who fought, died, survived and lived in and under the battlefields of France during the first World War. Between these accounts we were thrown forward in time to the 1970’s and a women’s quest, Elizabeth, to discover herself by discovering her families past.
The book is wonderfully written although, for me at least, the introduction of Elizabeth was a little early and jarred, however on the other hand, through her eyes a journey of discovery and understanding is told which I believe has eluded many of us who have no first hand knowledge of what went on in those foreign fields, forever part of Britain. The characters are alive and vital even in the misery and squalor they are portrayed in, the story in turn engaged and enraged me; the ending made sense while making no sense at all; the book as a whole was both delightful and harrowing; the final page read the book was littered with post-it tags marking pages, passages, sentences, words. This is not an easy book, but it is an easy book to read; it is not a comforting book, but it ends on a note of comfort; it is not a light subject matter, but it certainly didn’t deserve to be sitting on a bookshelf for nearly 10 years!
My grandfather fought in Burma during WWII and never spoke of it, I could hear him speak though some of the pages. When soliders were described I could see the picture of him, which always hung on his and my grandmothers living room wall, smartly dressed in his uniform. He may have seen different horrors, but I now have a fresh understanding of why he didn’t want to recount them, although a part of me still wishes he had.
Remembrance Sunday approaches and there are many who think the time to remember is coming to an end, as the numbers of ex-servicemen decrease in number each year with time completing what bombs and bullets couldn’t do. There are those that believe any kind of Remembrance gives justification to continued wars. There are also those that think any act of Remembrance is some kind of glorification of war. I think such thoughts are misguided for me that isn’t what Remembrance is about. Every time there is a programme about ex-servicemen returning to those fields once scattered with bodies and now regimented with row after row of gravestones, it is not about victory they speak, it is about the men that were lost. Those who fought, who saw friends and companions die don’t want to recount the details, but neither do they want to forget the price. There is no hiding from the futility of war the countless lives lost, families and communities destroyed. But, if we forget the true cost of war, not in pounds or dollars but in lives then we are running the risk of loosing our very humanity.
For those of my generation and younger this book can put faces and names to the horrors of war, fictional ones maybe, but does that matter? The names and faces may be different but the consequences and realities of war are the same. This coming Sunday I plan to read out two passages of the book, lest we forget what Remembrance Sunday should really be all about.
And what about the rest of the Book Group you may be wondering. Well there was totally agreement that it wasn’t a book any of us would have picked to read but we were all glad that we have now read it and would recommend it.