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A masterpiece, set in the aftermath of WW1.
on 18 July 2001
This is a truly great book - rich in detail, ambitious in scope, and thoroughly researched, it gets right under the skin of the aftermath of WW1.
The protagonist, Joseph Monrow, is an all-too-human veteran of the war - one of its many victims, despite having never quite made it to the front. His attempt to write the great anti-war novel is plagued by doubts - is he up to the task? Are his motives pure? He is full of self-loathing, aware of his own weakness and failures; yet his honesty keeps us on his side.
Perhaps the finest scenes in the book are the descriptions of Flanders after the war - a vision of the Wasteland. The clear-up operation, which seems to be grinding on forever, is claiming its own victims - the poor Chinese and Indian labourers who've been drafted in, many being killed by left-over shells; the prostitutes who service the transient servicemen; the locals who've turned to making 'souvenirs' out of bullet and shell cases for the visiting tourists (sorry, mourners).
There is a theme of doubles throughout; Joseph is shadowed by his lookalike, Hubert Rail. Whilst Joseph's response to the war is an idealistic pacifism, Hubert's is a nihilistic cynicism and decadence. Likewise the two key women in the book shadow each other - Tilly Laine, who deals with her brother's death through a Christian belief in noble sacrifice; and Marda, the German widow who feels only sadness and loss, yet seems to have an almost pagan belief in fertility and renewal. Joseph is, of course, torn between the two women.
Late in the book is a marvelous scene where Joseph talks to a blinded ex-officer who is organ-grinding near the cenotaph. Joseph tells him how people take off their hats, even when passing the monument on buses. The blind man wants to know what the memorial says on it. 'The Glorious Dead,' says Joseph. 'It's just right for them,' says the blind man. 'The dead, you mean?' says Joseph. 'No,' says the veteran, 'the fools what take their hats off as they pass and don't reach into their damn pockets.'
The book's ending is visionary - a sort of epiphany. This is the only sort of ending it could have, really. Joseph has already discovered, through his attempts to write the Great Book, that there can be no neatly-closed stories where the war's concerned. Such narratives cannot capture the random destruction of the trenches.
It's impossible in this space to do justice the richness and subtlety of this book. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Sebastian Faulks' 'Birdsong' and Pat Barker's 'Regeneration Trilogy'. I think it is at least the match of, and possibly superior to, both.