Nick Dybek’s The Verdun Affair turned out to be a perfect choice to read on the centennial of the end of World War I. This novel takes place in the aftermath of the war, decades and a continent away from the last shot fired. But even though we meet our protagonist in 1950, it’s clear that Tom Combs is still haunted by something. When he reconnects with a man he met in the early 1920s in Italy, Tom begins to recall the woman he fell in love with and the lies he told her that he still regrets.
Tom Combs ended up France in the middle of World War I in unusual circumstances. His mother had just died and his father scooped him up, only to take Tom along when he joins up with an American ambulance unit. Tom is abandoned near Fleury when his father dies of typhus. The teenage Tom then spends years scrapping as a war orphan before he gets a job recovering skeletalized remains from old battlefields in what is still known as the zone rouge, the Red Zone.
While at Fleury, in 1921, Tom is asked to escort an American woman who is still looking for her husband, who disappeared in 1917. Dealing with the bereaved is a special job. Though he’s seen priests deal with relatives with compassion and honesty, Tom blunders when Sarah Hagen asks if he’s ever met her husband, Lee, while Tom worked with the American medics. Tom lies and says yes. He uses a memory of another man, in another town, in an effort to comfort a woman who is almost certainly a widow. And then, when the widow asks Tom up to her hotel room, Tom blunders again and accepts. Tom and Sarah fall a little bit in love and Tom is ejected from Fleury. His former employer softens the landing for him, but Tom strikes me as rootless, especially after Sarah follows up on leads in Italy.
Tom wanders here and there, making friends and rising at a Parisian newspaper, before he hears of Mrs. Hagan and races off to Bologna. From there, Tom relates a story of continued upheaval in Europe. Though the Armistice stopped the war, the losses still affect everyone. A lot of people are still grieving. Society is still piecing itself together. In Italy, the means that Mussolini and his Blackshirts are trying stitch Italian society along fascist lines.
The Verdun Affair is a poignant novel of loss, identity, recreating oneself after upheaval, and the chaos of war. Because it takes place after the Armistice, it forces us to reflect on the long aftermath of the war: the broken men, the holes in families, land that will never be the same, and more. Even though Tom and Sarah never fought as soldiers, they’re victims of the war, too. It’s also a love story, though fraught with guilt and bad timing. Because of all the complications in Tom and Sarah’s path, The Verdun Affair struck me as one of the most truthful books about World War I I’ve read for a lot time.