The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak

9501104It might seem strange to begin and end a book about a soldier and a World War with mothers sacrificing themselves for their infant sons, the way Andrew Krivak does in The Sojourn. But these moments contrasts the lengths that a parent will go through to make sure their child lives against the willingness for politicians and generals to throw those lives away in the trenches of World War I.

Jozef Vinich’s mother threw him off a bridge when he was only a few months old to save him from being crushed by a train. After his mother’s sudden death and his father’s decline, Jozef moves back to the old country: Slovakia. It wasn’t Slovakia then. It wasn’t even Czechoslovakia. Jozef’s family’s bad luck lands him in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in time for him to be old enough to enlist in the army in 1916.

Jozef tells us his life story, from his days helping his father herd sheep in the mountains near what is now called Bratislava through the end of the war. Reading The Sojourn feels like sitting down with a grandparent to hear a war story that they’ve never told anyone. (In fact, that’s how this book is framed. Jozef is telling his story from 1972, so we know he survives the war.) Jozef tells us about his eagerness to leave his village and his hateful step-relatives and his excitement at becoming a scharfschütze, a sniper, for the Austro-Hungarian Army, with his adopted brother, Zlee.

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Undated photo of an Italian soldier on the Italian front. (Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.)

As snipers, Jozef and Zlee live charmed lives—at least until 1917 when their luck runs out. By the end of the war, the Austrian, Hungarian, and German forces were near spent. Supplies are scarce. The Italian and British soldiers they’re up against on the Italian Front seem endless. Their commanders have no idea what to do other than order pointless and costly last stands and charges. Frankly, it’s a miracle that Jozef survived.

When everything seems to be conspiring to kill Jozef, I kept thinking back to the beginning of the book when his mother dramatically saved his life and was killed by a train and the ending of the book, in which a young Roma woman sends her infant son with Jozef before she dies. These mothers want their children to live, in spite of all the odds against it. Their determination makes the casualties of World War I seem like an even bigger waste than they usually do. The trenches of the Western, Eastern, and Italian Fronts were full of mothers’ sons. Seeing so many of those sons die because of bad leadership and bad luck makes their mothers’ sacrifices just that much more tragic.

The Sojourn is a brief but deeply affecting read. Jozef’s narration of his miraculous story was so detailed that I felt like I was freezing and starving along with him in the Alps and the Dolomites. My heart was in my mouth whenever he had to face down Italian snipers or provide covering fire for his comrades against enemy machine guns. This is one of the best World War I novels I’ve read.

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Ghost Talkers is a compulsive, affecting read. I read the whole book in two sittings because I just had to know what happened next in Kowal’s alternate version of World War I. Ghost Talkers opens in July of 1916. British, French, and German troops are bogged down in the trenches. The difference is that this time the British have a secret weapon: ghosts. Mediums hold seances after battles to get intelligence on German troop movements and armaments. They’ve kept the secret for two years, but the word is getting out.

Ginger Stuyvesant is an American working for Britain’s Spirit Corps. She interviews ghosts of recently deceased soldiers and the work is wearing her own, physically and emotionally. Still, she has a duty. She also has a fiancé who works for British Intelligence. They can keep an eye on each other if she’s in Le Harve.

The book wastes no time getting its plot rolling. After a seance and some military administrative wrangling with a dash of sexism, things start to go wrong. Two British officers are murdered. Then, the Spirit Corps are flooded with men who died too far from the front to provide usable intelligence. Because no one will listen to Ginger’s suspicions, she decides to investigate before the Germans get their hands on the Brits’ secrets.

Ghost Talkers, like Kowal’s other novels, packs a lot of character development, pathos, and skilled world building into a tightly constructed plot. My only complaint? I wanted more story. I want to know what happens next for Ginger.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 August 2016. Edited to remove a spoiler at the author’s request.

The Angel Makers, by Jessica Gregson

Sari has always been an outsider in her small Hungarian village. Before World War I breaks out, she is the object of superstitious whispers and gossip. By the end of the story, however, she will be a sort of rogue heroine. Jessica Gregson’s The Angel Makers is a twisty tale of murder and mayhem. The end of this book still has me wondering about the ethical rights and wrongs of what happened in that little village.

Sari is the daughter of the táltosa healer and sort of shaman. Because of her parentage and because Sari is quiet, thoughtful, and has a piercing stare, she is followed everywhere by whispers from the other villages. Still, she manages. She keeps to herself, learning about healing from her father and the local midwife (though Judit does a lot more than just deliver babies). She even has a fiancé, Ferenc. Everything changes when Sari’s father dies and war breaks out. Most of the men leave the village, trooping off to fight on the Italian Front.

The women manage just fine on their own, though one new bride in the village misses her new husband. They’re not quite sure what to think when an officer sets up a prisoner of war camp for captured Italians. Sari holds herself aloof while the other women in the village take jobs cooking and cleaning at the camp. It isn’t long before some of those women begin affairs with the Italians. Then Sari meets Marco and finds herself falling in love with him.

When Ferenc returns from the front, Sari’s life takes a turn for the worse. The Angel Makers sees Sari facing violence and pregnancy. Her life is nothing but upheaval after the two men learn about each other. The plot races ahead through time, showing us what happens when Sari’s method of dealing with Ferenc gets out. I don’t want to give too much away about the book, but I will say that the last half of the book shows us the consequences of necessary murder becoming casual killing.

I finished The Angel Makers a few nights ago and am still thinking about it. The way the book is structured, with the first half of the book very detailed and the latter half consisting of short scenes, didn’t really work for me. The change in tone from tragic to almost farcical was jarring. And yet, I rather enjoyed the idea of women taking control of their village away from the men, even though it did get out of hand by the end. In sum, I think I have to use the word the book reviewers use when a book has good bits and bad bits; it’s uneven. Caveat lector.

The Empire of the Senses, by Alexis Landau

One of the most difficult things to teach the students in the World War II class I helped with last semester was the perversive, virulent anti-Semitism in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. They were familiar with some of the tropes in Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda, but they just didn’t get it. I wish I could have handed them Alexis Landau’s The Empire of the Senses. While the novel is also an interesting study in love and sacrifice, I think its characters also serve to illustrate the experience of German Jews between the world wars.

The first third of the book focuses on the Perlmutter patriarch, Lev. He has joined the German army just at the beginning of the first World War after his wife subtly pressures him. He is not happy about it. He’s only signed up because he hopes to recapture some of the love they had when they first married. Until this point, Lev has lived a sheltered life. He’s got a good job and is carving out a place in the upper middle class for himself in spite of his Jewishness. He’s very assimilated, but no one lets him forget that he was born a Jew in Galicia. Lev is stationed at Mitau in a fairly cushy job for the Eastern Front. While killing time avoiding being killed, Lev meets and falls in love with Leah. Lev never gives up his assimilated values, but he does feel at home with Leah and the other Jews of Mitau in a way that he never was in Berlin with his German family. The end of the war breaks up Lev and Leah*. Her husband might still be alive. Even if he’s not, some member of the Red Army would no doubt be happy to kill Lev. Lev and a friend desert and make their way to back to Germany.

The last two-thirds of the novel jump ahead to 1927. Lev has settled back into life with his family in Berlin, but he thinks about Leah constantly. Most of the action, however, focuses on Lev’s children. His daughter, Vicki, is determined to enjoy herself in the decadent nightlife of the city. She isn’t entirely charmed by the bisexual hedonism of her friends. When she meets Geza, she’s only a little reluctant to give up the life of a flapper to join the budding Zionist movement. His son, Franz, wrestles with his desire for men. Though he feels he can’t do anything about his desires, he tempts himself by joining all-male nature retreats. Eventually, he ends up in the Sturmabteilung, mostly because he has a serious crush on a man who has no scruples about manipulating Franz. (He has to lie about his parentage and use his mother’s semi-aristocratic maiden name to join.)

The Perlmutters can easily be read as a microcosm of the German Jewish experience. Lev is assimilated—as much as anyone allows him. He’s torn between all his family obligations. He has to support his fragile wife and appease his mother. Vicki’s story is at least partially about an ethnic Jew rediscovering her heritage. Through Franz, we see how Nazi anti-Semitism grows out of prejudice, slander, and dissatisfaction.

This is far from the only layer to The Empire of the Senses. Leaving aside any larger metaphors, this book is very much about the things we may or may not be willing to give up for love. Lev’s lost love is still alive and living in New York. But is he willing to break up his family? Josephine needs someone to take care of her. His children are used to a certain standard of living. As for Vicki, her love wants to move to Palestine and live on a kibbutz. Not only would she have to learn Hebrew, she’d have to adapt to a life completely different from her carefree existence. Franz never gives himself the chance to consider living with his love, a bartender he meets by chance.

When I read historical fiction about Jewish characters in Germany and Europe between the wars, I’m usually gripped with fear for them. I have a clock counting down to 1935 in my head as I read and I yell at the characters to get out before it’s too late. That didn’t happen to me with The Empire of the Senses. Rather, I felt that tragedy would strike before the Nuremberg Laws through the characters’ own actions. Who would chose to sacrifice for love? Would anyone be happy?**

* If it happens in the first third of the book, it’s not a spoiler to reveal it in a review.
** How do you feel about spoilers now?

The Hundred-Year Walk, by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

The more I learn of history, the more I see events repeating themselves. In some cases, it’s fascinating to see. In others, the repetition breaks my heart. For example, many people had pointed out the similarity in western countries denial of refugees from Syria is an awful lot like our denial of Jewish refugees before and during World War II. Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s book The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey, taught me that our treatment of Jewish refugees mirrored the West’s unwillingness to help Armenians when word got out that the Turkish government was trying to kill them all. The only thing that could make things any worse is that now, even a century later, the Turkish government refuses to admit that there was a genocide. There are laws on the books that prohibit Turkish citizens from speaking about it; activists and writers have been threatened and even killed for speaking out.

Like the Jews only a few decades later, the Armenians were a religious and ethnic minority inside a country where they had lived for centuries. They had suffered legal discrimination and pogroms that worsened towards the end of the nineteenth century. After the Battle of Sarikamish, where the Turkish Army lost heavily to the Russians in the winter of 1914-1915, Enver Pasha and the Turkish government began a campaign of scapegoating Armenians for the loss. The government claimed that the Armenians were working with the Russians against the Turks. (Hitler and the Nazis would do something similar at the start of the Holocaust and blame Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.) On 24 April 1915, Turkish forces began to round up Armenians. Community leaders were killed first. Hundreds of thousands were deported east and south into the Syrian desert. Their homes and belongs were stolen. Many died from disease, starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion. Thousands who managed do survive this were killed by Turks and Chechens and Arabs. To call these crimes and murders anything other than the Armenian Genocide is an insult to the victims and survivors.

Dawn Anahid MacKeen is the granddaughter of an Armenian who survived against all odds. Stepan Miskjian and his family lived in Adabazar (now Adapazarı) when Stepan and his brother were called up to serve in an Armenian labor battalion in 1914. When the deportations began, his mother and sisters were sent to a camp in the interior. Stepan and his Armenian compatriots were marched further and further southeast, their rations being cut again and again, until it became clear what was happening. For the next three years, Stepan would fight to reunite with his family.

Miskjian told his story in a series of notebooks written in Armenian. MacKeen’s mother badgered her until she wrote Stepan’s story. Using family friends and other members of the Armenian diaspora, MacKeen had the biographies translated. The project ended up taking ten years as MacKeen dug deeper and deeper into the history. She even traveled to Turkey and Syria to retrace her grandfather’s route. The Hundred-Year Walk is the product of all that labor.

This headline appeared in the New York Times on 15 December 1915. (Via Wikipedia)

This headline appeared in the New York Times on 15 December 1915. (Via Wikipedia)

What astonishes me most about the Armenian Genocide was that it was widely known. The US Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., wrote increasingly worried telegrams home to report on the Armenian plight. Armin T. Wegner*, a German lieutenant, documented and photographed Turkish atrocities for his government. The genocide was reported in newspapers across the world. But Morgenthau and other diplomats were repeated told by the Turkish government not to interfere. And no one interfered.

As I read The Hundred-Year Walk, I did what I often do when I read about war criminals: I went to Wikipedia to see if anyone was punished. At the end of World War I, the “Three Pashas”—Enver Pasha, Talaat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha—and other members of the Turkish military and government were court-martialed. Many were convicted, sentenced to jail sentences or labor, and executed. A few escaped before the court martial and were sentenced in absentia. Operation Nemesis was created by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation to kill any guilty men who’d escaped. One of the Three Pashas, Talaat, was killed by an Armenian in Berlin; the German court acquitted the assassin.

MacKeen’s book only briefly addresses the aftermath and retribution. Rather, she hews closely to her grandfather’s accounts. And, in telling her grandfather’s story, she tells the story of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who were never heard. There are a lot of Armenian names and words in The Hundred-Year Walk that I stumbled over. I didn’t mind. I stumbled knowing that the names and words are small memorials that keep us from forgetting the Armenian Genocide. The names made me think of Janelle Monae and Wondaland’s “Hell You Talmbout.” Saying the names keeps their memories alive. They should never be forgotten.

The Hundred-Year Walk is slated for publication on 12 January 2016, almost 101 years after the Armenian Genocide began. I hope it is widely read and discussed because, even 101 years later, our governments need reminding that saving lives is more important than alliances or trade or fear of terrorism.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be published 12 January 2016.

* Wegner was later named Righteous Among Nations for speaking out against the Holocaust.

The Lie, by Helen Dunmore

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”—so says the Gospel of John. But after reading Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, I have to wonder if telling the truth just means the liar exchanges the weight of guilt for the weight of punishment. This is certainly the case for Dan Branwell, a veteran of the Great War who has returned to his rural Cornwall village accompanied by the ghost of his best friend.

It’s not long before we learn that Dan is troubled by his war experiences. He’s able to function when he’s alone. He can tend the farm “owned” by an old family friend, Mary—another solitary soul. He can make repairs, do little errands for Mary, and shift for himself. But on bad nights, he sees the ghost of Frederick standing at his feet. The Lie is not written chronologically, so we don’t know why Frederick keeps coming back until much later in the book. Instead, we first learn about the bond between Dan and Frederick and Frederick’s sister, Felicia. We also don’t learn just how damaged Dan is until much later. At one point in the book, when Dan might have let the sea take him and end his tormented thoughts, he won’t allow it:

But the sea can’t take me far. It’s going out, sucking what it can with it. I move my arms and push myself backwards, towards deeper water, but it’s still not deep enough. It refuses to take me. Even if it did, I would fight it. I would cling and scrabble, as I did before. My mouth and eyes would fill with blood and I would think of nothing but myself. (57*)

This passage also contains a hint about what is truly troubling Dan.

In Dan’s present, he struggles to reconnect with Felicia, but small things will trigger memories. A smell will remind him of the stench of trench mud. The walls of the furnace tunnels will make him feel as trapped as he did when trenches would collapse. He fights again and again to survive the panic, just as he did during the war. The memories of war would have been hard enough for any veteran to deal with, but Dan has a secret that he can barely admit to himself.

Perhaps if Dan had been able to live on his own, he might have been able to stop punishing himself for surviving the war when his best friend didn’t. It would be another several decades before a veteran with the mental scars Dan carries could actually get the kind of treatment and counseling that he really needed. In his time, there was no such thing as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Veterans were neurotic or cowards or “troubled.” But on his own, Dan might have been able to process (how I hate using pop psychology terms, but I can’t think of a better word here) his guilt and stop smelling mud and seeing blood and Frederick.

Though relatively short, The Lie is a finely drawn portrait of a suffering veteran. I marked a lot of passages because I was so struck by the truth or clarity of them. Dunmore is a very gifted writer.

* Quote is from the 2014 kindle edition from Atlantic Monthly Press.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give to readers who carry a burden they won’t let themselves drop. Give also to readers who have veterans in their lives they are struggling to help.

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller

Shell shock. Battle fatigue. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Society seems to have only started to take the condition seriously within the last few years. In Laurence Bartram’s time, just after the first World War, it was just considered weakness and cowardice and nerves. After the war, Laurence, like so many other men of his generation, struggles to fit back into civilian life. His wife and infant son died while he was in France. His inheritance means that he doesn’t have to work. His only occupation is working, desultorily, on a book about church architecture. Then a letter arrives from an old acquaintance and suddenly, Laurence Bartram is recalled to life to investigate the suicide of a former school friend. I picked up Elizabeth’s Speller’s The Return of Captain John Emmett because I enjoyed The First of July so much. Speller has a knack for brilliant plotting that takes one in unexpected directions.

The letter from Mary Emmett, the eponymous John Emmett’s sister, summons Laurence out to rural England. John has always been a mysterious figure, even to his own family. Even before the war, the Emmetts had somewhat lost track of their only son. They knew he’d been engaged to a German woman, but that’s about the last thing they know for sure about John. He was even more quiet after he got back from the war. The Emmetts thought that some time at a local sanatorium would help bring John back to himself. The next thing they know, John is found in the woods, miles from the hospital, dead from a fatal gunshot. All Mary and her family want to know is why.

Laurence is not a trained detective. He used to be a school teacher before he went to war. Still, Laurence seems to fall into being an investigator like a natural. He has a knack for asking questions and getting people to talk to him. His friend, Charles, a huge reader of mystery novels, gets into the spirit of things and helps Laurence by tapping into his connections when Laurence needs information.

Nothing is straightforward. The more Laurence learns, the less things add up. How did John get so far away from the sanatorium? How did he get a gun? Why are so many of John’s former veterans also dead of gunshot wounds? There are three plausible solutions to what happened to John, but every time Laurence gets close, a new piece of evidence comes up that blows up his nascent theories. As the weeks roll by, it becomes clear that John’s participation in a firing squad during the war is at the heart of John’s later death.

Laurence and Charles have to figure out how to be detectives and what to do once they figure things out. I’ve noticed in a lot of other mystery novels featuring amateur detectives that the amateurs are a little too skilled to be believed. The Return of Captain John Emmett is not a conventional mystery. Nothing is too easy in this book. The whole book is delightfully complex, much more complex than most other mysteries I’ve ever read. It feels more real than most fiction.

I’m glad there’s already a sequel out.

Footprints in the Desert, by Maha Akhtar

Maha Akhtar’s Footprints in the Desert had so much potential. T.E. Lawrence makes an appearance and blows up trains and tracks. The Ottoman Empire is fighting against Faisal ibn Hussein‘s Arab Revolt. The main characters are on the run from Ottoman agents in Cairo. What’s not to like? In all honesty, this book has only its setting to recommend itself. The characters were, if not outright caricatures, shallow and one-dimensional. The dialog is dreadful. The pacing is all over the place. Most of the protagonists have miraculous escapes (except when a minor character is sacrificed to make the story more believable). I’m sure the only reasons I finished this book were the fact that I was tired after a week of library conferencing and trapped on a plane for a couple of hours. I didn’t have many brain cells to spare for anything better.

The plot, in brief, follows Salah as he escapes (repeatedly) from the forces of an Ottoman pasha. Salah is wanted because he has been stealing information about troops and trains for the British and the nascent Arab revolutionaries. He’s not entirely sold on the idea of an pan-Arab state, but he likes them better than he likes the Ottomans. (Motivations are only rarely examined in Footprints in the Desert.) Meanwhile, his long-time love, Noura, is recently widowed and in need of shelter. Both make their way to Cairo, where Salah’s mother lives. The rest of the book is a repeat of Salah does something, then the Ottomans fail to kidnap the right people or blow the right things up, and Salah remains at large. This sequence is replayed almost half a dozen times until World War I comes to an end and the Ottoman Empire is dissolved.

I can’t recommend this book at all.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 4 August 2015.

The First of July, by Elizabeth Speller

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and continued for the next four and a half months. By the end of the engagement, more than 1,000,000 men had been killed or wounded*. It is one of the deadliest (if not the deadliest) battle in history. The title of Elizabeth Speller’s incredible novel, The First of July serves as a constant reminder to the reader of what’s coming for the five protagonists. The men The First of July centers on enlisted in their countries’ armies because of misguided camaraderie, hereditary patriotism, or sheer bad luck. The novel begins in the summer of 1914, but the clock is already counting down to 1 July 1916.

Jean-Baptiste Mallet is the first of the of the four protagonists to be introduced. He is an only child of a widowed mother. After discovering that his mother’s lover is a German, he runs away to Amiens and then Paris. It’s not long before the French Army is mobilized and Jean-Baptiste becomes a poilu—an infantryman.

Frank Stanton is the son of a Devonshire coffin-maker who works as a clerk for Debenhams in London. Through his first-person narrative—he’s the only first person narrator inThe First of July—we see Britain’s mobilization. Talk of events in continental Europe is everywhere as first one country than another declares war. Frank isn’t in the first wave of volunteers, but it isn’t long before a chance meeting with another of the novel’s protagonists sends him to the bicycle corps to work as a messenger.

Benedict Chatto’s recommendation got Frank into the bicycle corps. This narrator joined up because his best friend essentially volunteered the pair of them. Benedict has harbored a crush for Theo for years. Theo’s talent with music makes Benedict’s audio-visual synesthesia spark. But then Theo joins the Royal Flying Corps, leaving Benedict in artillery.

The last of the protagonists, Harry Sydenham, left England for New York years before the novel opens. He’s reinvented himself as an American captain of industry. His father’s death pulls him back to his roots in the landed gentry. England is at war and Harry is, by birth, English. He feels it’s his duty to fight, even though he wants to remain in the States.

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Thiepval Monument to British soldiers who went missing during the Battle of the Somme

There are numerous moments of connection that link the four protagonists. They run into each other by chance. The connections grow tighter as the men are ordered to the Somme by the French and British armies. At one point, Jean-Baptiste’s letter revealing the German origins of a surgeon with the French army is handed off to Harry, who passes it on to Frank while listening to Benedict and Theo playing the organ at the Amiens Cathedral.

The protagonists rarely meet, but I didn’t feel cheated as the novel drew towards its climax. Usually, it bothers me when a novel refuses to tie up disparate narratives. Instead, I read Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Benedict, and Harry as representations of the sheer diversity of soldier experiences in the First World War. Through their eyes, we see the deep psychological and social trauma the war dealt its combatants. There is a deeply moving passage narrated by Harry that captures the paradigm shift that was happening. After a dinner with Eton alums, Harry is returning to his berth when he sees cavalry on the road:

They had been returned to base late in the evening. It was still just light. The driver decided to take the side roads, but they were met by an extraordinary sight, something that in the violet semi-darkness might have been a scene from a medieval tapestry: there, avoiding the endless trail of troops and guns on the main road, were the cavalry, their tall lances upright, bobbing up and down as they rode between the fields, a slender new moon above them, and the only sound the horses’ hooves and the jangling of bridles.

Their car went slowly past them: the Dragoons, the Lancers, the Hussars, the Royal Horse, and the Life Guards, even the Indian Cavalry—for a while they were caught in the middle of dark-skinned turbaned troopers from the Deccan Horse, and he thought he identified a small group of mounted Canadians. The sight had moved and disturbed him where all the modern machinery of war he had seen earlier—the great guns, the wagons carrying rolls of barbed wire, the canteens and field ambulances; the parade of metal and men heading inexorably to the front—had failed. (289-290**)

The cavalry are doomed. The four protagonists are probably doomed, but I kept reading in the hope that they might survive. This is fiction; it can bend the rules of probability enough to save the lives of the four men, right?

The Battle of the Somme was a disaster. The last third of the book is the the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916. We see the British plan go wrong immediately. The artillery fire failed to destroy the barbed wire in no man’s land. The barrage just let the Germans know something big was coming. The rainy days before the battle turned the roads to mud, making it impossible for the messengers to get through with any speed. To think that the “battle” would continue until November of 1916 is crushing. In her postscript, the author notes:

That day [1 July 1916] remains the worst military disaster to have befallen the British Army in terms of losses. The final returns showed 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing, and 585 taken prisoner. (431)

Almost no territory exchanged hands, but what territory did shift from German control to British is a meager price to pay for all the blood and pain. By this time, we have spent almost 400 pages getting to know Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Benedict, and Harry. They’re not cannon fodder; they’re as real as fictional characters can be. With The First of July, Elizabeth Speller does what nonfiction rarely can. This novel brings home the horror, misery, absurdity, and dread that World War I should engender, even 100 years after it began.


* To put this number in perspective, I grew up in Idaho, a state with a population of about one million people. Imagine if the entire state’s population was killed or wounded or went missing.
** Quotes are from the 2013 Pegasus Books edition, digitized by Open Road Media. Page numbers are approximate.