Stories of sacrifice, courage, and loss from World War I
Almost a century after World War I’s first battles were fought, its lessons about the high costs of modern warfare still resonate with today’s readers, as do its dramatic stories of personal sacrifice and courage. Historical fiction set during this period draws on a wide range of individual experiences, from hellish descriptions of innocence lost in the trenches to heartbreaking passages capturing the grief of those left behind. The recent successes of television programs such as Downton Abbey and Parade’s End (which in turn was based on Ford Maddox Ford’s tetralogy) have sparked even greater interest in this rich historical era, and the coming months will see the publication of a diverse group of new novels about “the Great War” and its legacy. [This year has already seen a number of new notable novels about World War I—Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars, Jojo Moyes’s The Girl You Left Behind, and P.S. Duffy’s The Cartographer of No Man’s Land. For a basic collection of World War I titles, please see “The Great War at 100.”—Ed.]
Echenoz, Jean. 1914. New Pr. Jan. 2014. 128p. tr. from French by Linda Coverdale. ISBN 9781595589118. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781595589248. F
Celebrated French author Echenoz (Ravel; Lightning) turns his attention to World War I in this short novel about two brothers who go to war and the woman they leave behind. Young Anthime has previously only existed in the shadow of his charismatic older brother Charles, but the losses he sustains in the war permanently change how he views both himself and the life he’s led. Meanwhile, Blanche, the woman both brothers love, waits to discover whether either will be coming home to her. VERDICT Echenoz memorably captures the grotesque facts of life in the trenches in economical prose that combines vivid sensory images with moments of biting dark humor. The book’s primary power lies not in its plot or its characters but in the skill with which the author transports the reader to the front lines in scenes mixing a wry, conversational narrative style with meticulously described details: the precise weight of a knapsack, the deafening sound of shells overhead, the inescapable stench of rotting corpses. A short but immersive read.
Hope, Anna. Wake. Random. Feb. 2014. 304p. ISBN 9780812995138. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780812995145. F
In Hope’s debut novel, the second anniversary of Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) is approaching, but the wounds caused by the war are far from healed in the lives of her three protagonists. Ada’s inability to let go of her dead son is causing her marriage to fail, Evelyn has allowed the loss of her husband to harden her heart, and Hettie is frustrated by her brother’s “shell shock,” which keeps him from financially supporting her family. The three women’s stories are interspersed with scenes describing the journey of the body of the English “Unknown Soldier” from a field in France to Westminster Abbey. VERDICT This is a moving read about the emotional paralysis caused by grief and uncertainty. Hope creates three very different main characters who are all sympathetic, even in their worst moments, and each completes a believable emotional journey over the course of the book. The inclusion of the Unknown Soldier allows for a satisfying resolution that acknowledges the importance of memorializing the dead even as the protagonists finally begin to imagine new beginnings for themselves. [See Prepub Alert, 8/26/13.]
Robson, Jennifer. Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War. Morrow. Jan. 2014. 499p. ISBN 9780062273451. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062273468. F
When Lady Elizabeth “Lilly” Neville-Ashford breaks free of her wealthy parents’ control and becomes an ambulance driver at the front, “somewhere in France,” she discovers an unexpected perk in also being able to be close to her childhood crush, surgeon Robbie Fraser, whose lower-class origins made him an unworthy suitor in her parents’ eyes. The war provides its own obstacles to the couple’s relationship, however, and Robbie and Lilly struggle to overcome both the horrors around them and their own fears and anxieties about the future. VERDICT Although Robbie and Lilly’s love story dominates the narrative, debut novelist Robson never creates enough tension to leave the reader in any doubt about the romance’s probable outcome, and Robbie remains a somewhat bland and underdeveloped figure throughout. Lilly’s determination and insistence on learning to be more independent, however, should appeal to readers who like tales of plucky heroines making the best of tough circumstances, and her unusual perspective as a female ambulance driver puts an interesting spin on the scenes of wartime carnage.
Smith, April. A Star for Mrs. Blake. Knopf. Jan. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9780307958846. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307958853. F
After losing her son in World War I, small-town librarian Cora Blake is surprised over a decade later to receive a letter from the U.S. government inviting her to go to Europe to visit his grave as part of a “Gold Star Mother” tour. Looking forward to the adventure, Cora also hopes that she and the other mothers will be able to find the closure that has eluded them for so long. A chance encounter with an embittered journalist gives her the opportunity to tell her story to the world and leads her to discover some unexpected truths about the long-term legacy of the war. VERDICT What initially feels like a straightforward and heartwarming road trip novel becomes more complicated as the women draw nearer to their destination and squabbles over class and personality differences give way to increasing criticism of the government and military bureaucracy. Though some later plot developments are a bit far-fetched, Smith, in a change of pace from her “FBI Special Agent Ana Grey” thrillers (Good Morning, Killer), artfully maintains a generally warm tone while also allowing her characters to ask hard questions about the war and its consequences.
Speller, Elizabeth. The First of July. Pegasus. Nov. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9781605984971. $25.95. F
After publishing two well-received mysteries set just after World War I (The Return of Captain John Emmett; The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton), Speller sets her latest work during the war itself, taking the title from the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1914—a day marked by catastrophic losses. The book follows the intersecting lives of four men, three English and one French, from the lead-up to the war until the fateful day of the battle. Speller has written a truly beautiful novel that deals frankly with the horrible realities of war while affirming the perseverance of love and compassion even in the most terrible of circumstances. Each of the four narrative threads is compelling, and the author manages the occasional intersections of the plotlines with a deft hand that keeps those intersections from feeling gimmicky or overly sentimental. VERDICT As unforgettable as Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, this highly recommended title will be savored by historical fiction fans. It deserves a prominent spot in any collection of fiction about the Great War.
AND ONE MORE
Shreve, Anita. Stella Bain. Little, Brown. Nov. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780316098861. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780316215442. F
Shreve is back with a period piece that will keep readers thinking. In the midst of World War I, a woman finds herself lost and alone in London with no idea of who she is or how she got there. After being taken in by a kind, wealthy couple, Lily Bridge and her doctor husband, August, slowly a few memories return to her. Her name is Stella Bain, and she needs to go to a military location called The Admiralty to find the person who has the key to unlock the rest of her memories. As the story unfolds, Stella does find her identity and the reasons that made her abandon her American family and head off to Europe to help in the war. She ends up in a nasty court battle and eventually meets back up with Dr. Bridge in an emotional conclusion. VERDICT With period pieces on television such as Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife becoming so popular, Shreve has chosen a timely setting. As usual, her plotlines and domestic drama do not disappoint. The masses of Shreve fans will line up for this one, as will some Downton Abbey enthusiasts. [See Prepub Alert, 6/1/13; five-city tour.]