The Great War of 1914-1918 has provided rich pickings for novelists over the years; almost a hundred years after the event, the scale of the horrors and human suffering remain such that hardly a month goes by without the appearance of at least one new story based on events of those times. One would think that by now almost everything that there was to say on the matter had already been said, and many times over, at that; in a sense, it probably has. Certainly, Louisa Young's "My Dear I Wanted To Tell You" brings nothing particularly new to the oeuvre; indeed, many of her themes and her characterisations are so predictable as to border on the hackneyed. But what this particular book may lack in originality it more than makes up for in masterful handling of pace, clear-sighted and poignant portrayal of thought-processes and emotions, a wonderful understanding of the human condition, all married to a flawless grasp of dramatic structure and flow.
The book draws you in from the very first page, and holds you in a vice-like grip right to the very last page. There are times when it is hard even to remember to breathe. When she finally lets you go, it is with a sense of exhilaration as well as exhaustion.
The story is well researched and rich in historical detail but this is always kept properly subservient to the main narrative; Louisa Young always keeps her characters well to the foreground, never allowing the historical fact and scale of the events themselves to take over -- a mistake all too often made in books of this kind. "My Dear I Wanted to Tell You" operates first and foremost at a fundamentally human level, bringing home the truth that in those times there were a great deal more (and more important) battles fought daily in people's minds than in the mud of Flanders, and that the casualties of war on this scale extend well beyond those killed or maimed in the fighting. It also has a lot to say about the endurance and resilience of the human spirit (as well as a fair amount about how fragile that can be too) and the dangerous comfort to be found in lies, both to oneself and to loved ones.