At Night All Blood is Black, by David Diop

Once a certain amount of time has passed and once we’ve heard a story the same way enough times, history can kind of fossilize in our collective memories. Historical fiction can bring those old stories to life for us, but it takes a book like David Diop’s emotionally wrenching At Night All Blood is Black (faithfully translated by Anna Moschovakis) to make use revise what we thought we knew and push the fossils into new shapes. In this brief novel, Diop puts us into the fracturing mind of Alfa Ndiaye, one of 200,000 men who fought for France as a Senegalese Tirailleur.

Alfa Ndiaye is a legend among his regiment. After the dead of his more-than-a-brother, Mademba Diop, Alfa has been lingering in no man’s land to ambush German soldiers. When he catches one, he kills them and takes their rifles and right hands. Alfa is hailed as a particularly gutsy hero for, he tells us, the first three hands. When he brings back the fourth, his captain and the rest of the regiment start to turn on him. He might be a legend to them, but he becomes a terrifying one that no one knows what to do with.

The above (and a bit more in the form of flashbacks that show us Alfa and Mademba’s childhoods and adolescence) are the barebones plot of At Night All Blood is Black, but that’s not all that happens. The plot is really a support for Alfa’s thoughts as he reflects on his friend’s death and his own role in it, about what it means to fight for the country that’s colonizing his own, what feels like to be seen as a savage by so-called civilized people, and what true bravery really is. This is not an easy book to read, especially once Alfa’s sense of self—and even his sense of embodiment—starts to disintegrate after another comrade dies and he brings back an eighth hand.

Alfa and his story push us to think about the African experience of World War I, an experience we might not have known even existed. It’s strange to be reminded that World War I involved soldiers pulled in from Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia (that I know of). I’ve read several novels that show how bewildering it was for the average Briton, German, or Frenchman being whisked into a brutal war over national promises. How strange and horrifying it might have been for a man to be pulled into a war because Great Britain or Germany or France marched into his country decades or centuries earlier and put their flags down everywhere.

Five soldiers from the 43rd Tirailleurs battalion, c. 1914-1918 (Image via Wikicommons)

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray

Note: This book was originally scheduled to come out in June 2021. According to Edelweiss, the expected publication date has been pushed to March 2022 on the date of this writing.

Two Storm Wood, by Philip Gray, is a bold book. So many other books about war, fiction or non, discuss the horror of war, occasionally the glory, often the heroism. But only rarely do books about war juxtapose the war dead with the victims of murder. Seeing the two so closely together forces us to try and spot the difference—and wonder if there even is a difference. And Two Storm Wood does this in addition to giving us a love story and psychological drama. This book is an emotional roller coaster.

Amy Vanneck is a romantic. So much so that she travelled across from England to France to find the remains of her secret fiancé at the beginning of Two Storm Wood. (Secret because Amy’s mother, Lady Constance, disapproves of her daughter marrying someone from the lower classes.) As she is told over and over, the former battlefields of northwestern France are no place for a lady. The people who tell her this aren’t wrong because most of the action of this book takes place near the zone rouge—land that was cordoned off so that no one would be killed by all the unexploded ordnance and toxic ground that’s still there more than a century later. But as I said, Amy is a romantic, and determined enough to walk into that to find what’s left of the man she loved.

At the same time that we follow Amy’s efforts to track down her fiancé, we also follow Captain James Mackenzie. Mackenzie is in charge of a group of British soldiers and Chinese laborers (who are subject to constant, appalling racism by the British officers who are bossing them around) who are collecting the remains of British soldiers who died to be reinterred in mass graves. Along with collecting those remains for reburial, Mackenzie tries to collect every clue he can so that the soldiers his crew finds can hopefully be buried with a name. It’s a noble mission. It’s also very dangerous work, being done by men who want to go home as soon as possible. It’s also work that brings Amy to Mackenzie. He and his men are digging near Two Storm Wood, the last place Amy knows where her fiancé was before she lost contact.

Unexploded WWI ordinance near Ypres in 2004 (Image via Wikicommons)

Meanwhile, a man known as Major Westbrook (but who we know is not Major Westbrook, because we saw this man smother the real Westbrook in the prologue) inveigles himself into the story by claiming to have orders to investigate what might be a war crime at Two Storm Wood. Thirteen men were tortured and murdered there before the end of the war. Most would be content to write the deaths off as another Hunnish atrocity—except for the fact that that part of the line was in British hands at the time.

Amy, Mackenzie, and Westbrook follow all the clues they can get their hands on as they try to solve their various mysteries. From our vantage point as readers, we can see that they all have different ends of the same stick. The plots converge near the end of the novel into a spectacular running chase along the edges of the zone rouge as all the secrets finally come out.

Two Storm Wood is a book I wish I had read as a member of a book group, because I would love to talk through all the questions this book tosses up. What do we owe the dead? Is it right for governments to use their soldiers’ lives in a conflict like World War II? What is the moral definition of a war crime? What is the difference between a death as a result of murder and death as the result of an enemy bullet? I hope you readers out there remember this book when it does come out so that we can finally talk about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Absolutist, by John Boyne

The dictionary definitions of “cowardice” and “bravery” pale in comparison to actually deciding what to do in the face of a war as terrible as World War I. In The Absolutist, by John Boyne, everything revolves around questions of bravery and cowardice: in facing apocalyptic combat, revealing one’s sexuality in a setting where it is illegal, concealing terrible secrets. We see men who shout in the face of danger and figuratively whip others into charging the guns. We see men who run. And we see men who are caught in between the extremes. The Absolutist is the fourth book I’ve read by Boyne and I have really come to enjoy the very real ethical dilemmas he creates in fully-realized historical settings.

Tristan Sadler is one of the thousands of veterans living with awful memories of what is sometimes known as the Great War. That war—also called the War to End All Wars with painful historical irony—was catastrophic in so many ways. Jingoism combined with nineteenth-century tactics and weapons of mass destruction to destroy a generation. Tristan lied about his age to join the British Army after his family turned him out. (He kissed a boy.) At training camp, Tristan meets a teenaged boy he has an affinity with—perhaps even a shared attraction. But because all of the boys will be sent to France in just a few short weeks, anything that might be there has an expiration date.

The Absolutist is framed around a long conversation Tristan has with the sister of that teenaged boy, Will, shortly after the end of the war. The book moves back and forth between that conversation and Tristan’s memories of training and his time in the trenches. Every turn of the conversation leads Tristan to a memory of his relationship with Will. Marian becomes the only person Tristan tells the whole truth, from his attraction to Will to the heartbreaking act that Tristan regrets and conceals about as much as his sexuality. There are hints about the tragedy ahead that kept me glued to the pages. It’s Shakespearean in the best possible way.

Will and Tristan constantly discuss cowardice and bravery. It begins with the topic of a conscientious objector in their unit. Wolf is almost universally reviled by the officers and recruits. Will is intrigued. Although he is also a volunteer, he starts to ask questions about fighting. He also starts to wonder if it might actually be braver to stand against everyone by objecting to combat than it is to fight in France. (I would argue that both are forms of bravery.) Tristan, however, is so concerned with keeping his sexuality a secret that he becomes a model of conformity. This includes calling anyone who won’t fight a feather-man (because conscientious objectors were sometimes given white feathers in public, to shame them) or coward. This long-running debate between Tristan and Will—over fighting or objecting to fighting—completely flips when Tristan forces Will to talk about their sexual relationship.

There is so much food for thought in The Absolutist. I would’ve loved to read it with a book group so that I could hash out the questions this novel raises. I also very much enjoyed the rich characterization here. Boyne creates characters that don’t often see. There aren’t any heroes or villains. All of the characters are flawed and utterly human. I can’t say enough how much I relished reading The Absolutist.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

My unintentional dive into historical mysteries continues with Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s series. This series has been on my radar for a while. It’s not just because of the striking covers (which I love), but because Maisie’s cases over the years are often related to important events in history: World War I, the changes to British society during the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of fascism, World War II, etc. I love a good genre mashup. What I found was so much more. Maisie has an unusually philosophical approach to cases, cases that are equally unique among the plots I’ve read. Like its protagonist, this novel asks bigger questions than whodunit and how do we catch them.

We meet Maisie Dobbs as she is setting up her office and taking her first case as a private investigator. She’s prepared for this for years, so it’s not surprising that she reacts with dismay when she learns the details of that very first case. Like many private detectives, in fiction and in real-life, Maisie is asked to find out if a woman is cheating on her husband. Unlike many of those other detectives, Maisie is just as concerned about what her client will do with the information as she is about finding out what happened…much to that client’s annoyance. He had no idea that he had just hired a detective who wants to take a more holistic approach.

Maisie “solves” the case of the possibly cheating wife quickly and efficiently, but stumbles across a much bigger case involving a group of disfigured veterans and fraud. This much bigger case leads Maisie down memory lane to places she’s tried very hard not to think about since the end of the Great War. The middle of Maisie Dobbs takes us from 1929 back to Maisie’s childhood and then World War I. Maisie was the precocious child of an impoverished and widowed costermonger. With no other opportunities, her father got her a job as an in-between maid for a wealthy lady. Maisie’s habit of getting up in the middle of the night to read books from the library led to her becoming the pupil of Maurice Blanche, who ended up teaching Maisie everything he knew about life, crime, and the human psyche. When war breaks out and Maisie sees her friends enlist as soldiers and nurses or take jobs in munitions plants, she takes a break from her studies at Girton College to become a nurse herself. This middle section felt like someone had taken down Maisie’s adult defenses and let us see the very young girl she used to be, before she had to protect herself from passion and grief. I understood Maisie a lot better after reading about her past.

When we return to the present and see Maisie take on The Retreat, an almost cult-like place for disfigured veterans to withdraw from the stares of outsides (for the price of signing over all their money and maybe not being allowed to leave). At the beginning of the novel, Maisie seemed like a model of discreet investigation. At the end, Maisie is not-so-surprisingly revealed to be a gutsy heroine who will risk danger in her determination to do the right thing.

Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing start to a mystery series. In a way, I’m glad that I’m late to the party. I have ten more books to read before I have to wait for Winspear to write and publish a new one. I want to see how Maisie evolves over the course of the series. I’m also very curious to see if the kinds of cases Maisie tackles are more than the typical murders and burglaries we see in this genre. The idea of an investigator trying to heal as much as solve her cases deeply intrigues me. After so many mysteries, it’s refreshing to come across something new.

The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

The beginning and the end of Kate Quinn’s thrilling The Alice Network seem like two different books—I mean, if it weren’t for the fact that Charlie St. Clair appears in both. At the beginning of the book, Charlie is a nineteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant. This being 1947, her wealthy parents have whisked her away to Europe to take care of her Little Problem. By the end of the novel, Charlie is a battle hardened young woman who has gone way above her pay grade to track down an evil man. The person who connects the beginning and the end of The Alice Network is Eve Gardiner; Eve is an ex-spy haunted by her experiences during the First World War and a hunger for revenge. Readers, this book is an incredible ride.

I felt for Charlie right from page one. The poor girl feels embarrassed and troubled enough even without her Maman hectoring her about her appearance and the way Charlie has probably ruined her life. And I definitely don’t blame her for escaping as soon as she arrives in England (on her way to Switzerland for an abortion). I was surprised at Charlie’s motivation. Her primary reason for absconding to London to track down Even Gardiner is to find her beloved cousin, Rose, who the family has not heard of since 1943. While Charlie was in New York during World War II, Rose was in France and may have gotten involved with the Resistance. Everyone but Charlie is convinced that Rose died. But when Charlie tracks down the volatile Eve, she has no idea what can of worms she has stumbled into.

Charlie has to work hard to get Eve to even agree to try to look for Rose. By 1947, Eve is a hard-drinking, traumatized wreck of a woman with mangled hands. But in 1915, as we learn in flashback chapters that alternate with Charlie’s story in 1947, Eve was a determined young woman who wants to fight for her country. She is fluent in three languages and might have been a shoo-in to the nursing corps or some other kind of war work if it weren’t for her stutter. No one gives her a second glance until a British intelligence officer figures out that she is a half-French polyglot. The officer barely has to sell being a spy to Eve before she signs up and is off for training. Eve is deployed to German-occupied Lille, to join the Alice Network run by the delightfully outrageous and fantastically competent Louise de Bettignies.

Louise de Bettignies’ life story inspired The Alice Network. (Image via Wikicommons)

In Charlie’s chapters, she, Eve, and Eve’s driver, former soldier Finn Kilgore, set off for France (after Charlie drops the name of the last person she knows Rose worked for before she disappeared) to try and find Charlie’s missing cousin. In Eve’s chapters, we learn about her harrowing career as a spy and the compromises she has to make to gather information. Every chapter reveals more about the horrors of the wars in France under the Germans, as well as more about the tangled paths Rose and Even had to follow. A name leads to a location, which leads to more secrets and another lead. It would be easy to give up because those leads are so often the merest hints. Charlie and Eve might be on wild goose chases; their firm belief in moving forward, with the support of Finn (who I now have a fictional crush on), keeps them going.

I checked The Alice Network out from the library almost as soon as I finished reading The Huntress, another amazing book about strong women, war, and the aftermath of war crimes. I wanted more and I was not disappointed by The Alice Network. The Alice Network‘s pace never lets up; I barely put it down because I had to know if Rose was still alive and if Eve would get revenge on the man who she believes broke her. I loved the fully realized characters and their emotional journeys on the roads of France. What truly astounded me about this book—and the book was pretty damned fantastic—was how much is based on actual history. Quinn writes about her inspiration in an afterword and how she used the historical record to create this outstanding novel.

The Salt of the Earth, by Józef Wittlin

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a strange creature. It spanned a huge swath of central and eastern Europe. Based in Vienna, it ruled over people who spoke Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian while ordering people around in German. It was bureaucratic and hidebound, as depicted in Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth (faithfully translated by Patrick Corness). This novel, the first in a planned but unfinished trilogy, gives us two views of the outbreak of World War I. In some chapters, it takes a macro view of the mobilization. In others, it zooms in to follow an illiterate Ukrainian peasant and other Austro-Hungarian citizens who got caught up in the war.

Because The Salt of the Earth is the opening novel in an incomplete trilogy, the pacing feels off. Instead of covering the arc of Piotr’s military experience, this novel is a long build up that takes Piotr from the outbreak of war to the beginning of his training in Hungary. The Salt of the Earth was clearly meant to be a big, sprawling epic of the war from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. But even though The Salt of the Earth is unfinished, it still provides an interesting reading experience. I ended up reading it more like a historical document, as a fictional account of events rather than a fully fledged novel.

Piotr, the protagonist at the heart of this book, is not as hapless or comic as Švejk or as tragic as Paul Bäumer, the protagonists of other iconic World War I novels. He’s an unlikeable man, dismissive of his lover (who loves him and serves essentially as a housekeeper Piotr can have sex with) and casually anti-Semitic. But he is a useful character for exploring the strange relationship people in the outskirts of the empire had with their Austrian rulers. Piotr believes in his government the way others believe in a religion. He has a completely one-sided relationship with his emperor. If he serves faithfully as a low-level railroad worker, he might someday be allowed to rise in the ranks and be awarded with the special cap worn by state employees. Just as he finally gets that special hat, Piotr is drafted and sent to basic training.

As I mentioned before, The Salt of the Earth is not a complete novel. It shouldn’t be read as one because it will only frustrate readers who want a satisfying conclusion. That said, I would only recommend this to readers who are curious about the experience of ordinary Austro-Hungarian men in 1914.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Regeneration, by Pat Barker

Early in Pat Barker’s moving, thoughtful novel Regeneration, Dr. William Rivers reflects on an experiment he assisted with when he was a much younger man. He and a colleague, Henry Head, wanted to know whether it was possible for severed nerves to regrow. Head cut a nerve in his arm and Rivers would probe the arm to see if sensation had been restored. Head suffered agonies during the tests, but they kept going because of the medical possibilities. Rivers thinks about this after a particularly grueling session with one of the men he is treating for war shock (now called post-traumatic stress disorder). Rivers has to probe, with questions, at these men’s worst memories and anxieties, in an effort to make them “fit for duty” so that they can return to the trenches of France. Rivers has to hurt them to heal them—a terrible thing for a sensitive man. 

In addition to William H.R. RiversRegeneration prominently features other actual historic figures. One of Rivers’ actual patients and one of the main characters of this book is poet Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, two other writers and British soldiers, also make significant appearances. In 1917, Sassoon began protesting the war, even as he was a soldier and an officer in the trenches. His protest centered on his belief that the war was being prolonged and could, if the politicians got their act together, be ended almost immediately. But his protests, culminating in a declaration that was eventually read before Parliament, lead to Sassoon being sent to Rivers in Scotland. Graves pulled stings to keep his friend from being court-martialed. Sassoon and Rivers consequently end up in the absurd position of a psychiatrist having to read a sane man in order to convince that sane man to return to the insanity of war. 

Drs. Head and Rivers in 1903, experimenting with nerve regeneration. (Image by Cambridge University Department of Psychology, via Wikicommons)

The most interesting parts of Regeneration, for me, were all the moments when Rivers* takes a step back to think about what is variously called war neurosis, malingering, shell shock, or war shock. For most, it’s a kind of weakness. Rivers is faced not just with his patients’ traumas, but also their resistance to psychotherapy. These men feel so much shame for what they see as their inability to cope with war, which many of them believe is their duty to find. World War I was so traumatic, for so many reasons, that in hindsight I can only feel sympathy for these men. They were put in unbearable, toxic, dangerous, and absurd situations and told they were cowards if they broke down under the strain. Not only that, Rivers feels a certain amount of peer pressure from his colleagues. Some are of Rivers’ mind and treat the soldiers as though their mental injuries were as serious (or more so) than physical injuries. Others, like Dr. Lewis Yealland, “treat” soldiers with something that is indistinguishable from torture. Yealland would administer electric shocks to men suffering from mutism or other physical symptoms of mental trauma until they started speaking or moving normally again. 

Like another recent read of mine, The Verdun Affair, this novel is about the aftermath of one of the worst conflicts humans have ever devised for themselves. Regeneration looks deeply at the mental aftermath and all the complicated thoughts it engenders, the lack of knowledge on the part of the psychologists about what they were up against, and the big question of the ethics of fighting the war at all. Rivers and Sassoon both wrestle with this question. Sassoon struggles with his guilt at being safe in Scotland while others fight on, and with his anger at the people in charge for keeping the fight going. Rivers has what I think is a worse dilemma: working to heal men only so that they can go back to a war that has devolved into little more than a meat grinder. Is it ethical to help men only to send them out to possibly die? 

I really enjoyed Regeneration. Even though the content is rough, especially since it’s based on actual history and medicine, I felt like I learned a lot from reading it. We’ve learned a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder in recent decades, mostly since the Vietnam War. Looking back further, it’s impossible not to see that the same disorder emerged in other conflicts. There was so much suffering and mental anguish in the decades (centuries) before that before we started taking a hard look at what it means to draft a man; order him to take a weapon and try to kill another human being before that human being can kill him; all while running the risk of being killed by gas, friendly fire, illness, etc.; and keep him there until he’s dead or so damaged that he can’t keep trying to kill other human beings. Sassoon, though he signed on in good faith that his government knew what it was doing when it went to war, had to speak up against its prolongation. Anything else would have been madness. 

* I looked up Rivers’ 1918 paper in The Lancet, about the mental symptoms of war trauma, in a fit of curiosity. 

The Verdun Affair, by Nick Dybek

36580718Nick 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.

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The Verdun battlefield in 2005, still showing the marks of repeated shelling.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

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Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

The Hawkman, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

36596712After World War I, millions of traumatized men returned to their homes to sink or swim with very little support for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.* PTSD was called shell shock or battle fatigue by people who recognized it as a psychological condition. People who didn’t called it cowardice or malingering. In Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman, we see a both reactions to a severely damaged returning soldier. Michael Sheehan has wandered Gloucestershire since the end of the war. He doesn’t speak. His hearing is damaged. He rarely sleeps. He is teased and chased off by most people he encounters. When he meets Eva Williams, it is the first time someone treats him with sympathy. Her kindness might save him from his memories.

Eva Williams teaches at a local women’s college in Bridgetonne; she also writes fairy tales that reference the modern world. Her forthrightness tends to startle the English villagers and annoy Lord Thornton, who’s money and influence attempt to keep the town the way it was before World War I and the Second Boer War. When Michael Sheehan arrives in Bridgetonne, Lord Thornton and everyone else wants him gone, in spite of Eva’s entreaties to help him. Lord Thornton thinks Sheehan is a malingerer; others think he’s a madman and a danger to ordinary people. So Eva starts to help him on the sly, helping him to slowly return to himself.

The Hawkman is a blend of Eva and Sheehan’s story, Eva’s fairy tales, and Eva and Sheehan’s past. Something will remind Eva of her mother, then her mind will drift back into the past before morphing into something like a fairy tale. Chapters will start with episodes that reveal Sheehan’s service as an Irishman in the British Army during the war before he became a prisoner-of-war. The closer we get to the end of the book, however, the harder it is to distinguish between Eva’s stories and what appears to be happening to Eva as she succumbs to a disease that’s not quite like tuberculosis. The more I read, the less I cared about what was might be real and what was fantasy.

This novel is an incredibly moving account of a returning soldier and the woman who is kind to him. The flashbacks and the tales add depth to a story that already had a lot of emotional weight. What I loved most was the way the layers of story circled around each other. By the end, I realized that some of the stories Eva wrote foreshadowed what happened to her in Sheehan. I was already intrigued by the story, but I marveled at the way The Hawkman was written. In addition to readers who like their fiction blended with fairy tales, I would also recommend this novel to writers who want to learn how to experiment with structure and genre boundaries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.


* Post-traumatic stress disorder certainly existed before World War I, it just didn’t get much attention as far as I can tell.