Monday, April 01, 2013

Book 39: The Winter of the World

The novel begins with the train carrying the UK's Unknown Warrior to London, and its eventual final resting place in Westminster Abbey.  After this opening, which also has brief appearances by what will soon be the novel's two main characters, the novel flashes back a few months to earlier in 1920.  Alex Dyer, a journalist, is back in France to cover the rebuilding of Flanders and France, and the types of things that are being done to commemorate the war's dead.  While there, he ends up sharing his story with one of the men involved in the work at the cemeteries (I'm not entirely clear if he's a grave digger, gardener or a combination of the two).
Alex was a war correspondent during World War I for England, and while he didn't always agree with the way the war was being reported to the public, he did his job, and also appeased himself with the idea that he would publish the whole truth after the war.  Shortly before Alex leaves for France to cover the war, he meets his best friend Ted one last time and is introduced to Ted's fiance Clare with whom he immediately falls in love.  She, too, feels this attraction, but neither act on it nor does Clare use these new feelings for a different man as a reason to prevent her wedding.  With Clare as a nurse, Ted as an officer, and Alex working as a journalist, all three are on the Western Front at the same time, though there are only one or two instances of the group meeting up at any point.
In addition to showing Alex's perspective, the novel occasionally switches to Clare's views, and shows her feelings and thoughts, and the daily life of a nurse during World War I, dealing with the young broken men she sees.  After the war, she continues to work with these men, serving as an assistant to a plastic surgeon of sorts, a doctor that creates life-like masks for the men with facial disfigurements to wear so they can continue on with their lives.  Given the framing of the story, it is of course no surprise to discover that Alex and Clare indeed have an affair though they are clearly on the outs by the beginning of the novel, two years after the war.
The novel was strongest when it focused on the details of the war, and I think I would quite enjoy reading a novel or history book about nursing during WWI.  I also quite enjoyed the way the author portrayed the nation two years after the war - on the one hand, they want to move on and veterans have a hard time finding jobs but on the other hand, the nation is not done grieving and has not let go of its dead, as can be seen with the overwhelming support and reaction to the Unknown Warrior (I've actually seen the tomb twice, and it really is very moving).  Clare at one point even says that the nation is much more concerned about the dead but has forgotten the living, something she can see especially in her line of work.  It's easy to hail someone as a a war hero when he has given a limb for his nation, but no one knows how to react to someone that has basically lost their face with anything other than horror.  The love story was sudden but not necessarily bad.  However, there was one point at the end of the novel that just felt like it was done more to progress the plot than because it was a natural decision on the character's view.  I understood the character's motivation, but not why he would choose to act on it - it just didn't make sense to me other than to get to the next step in the story.  As a result, I felt slightly taken out of the story, and didn't care as much about something that Alex decides to do at the end.  Still, I liked the perspectives the novel did well, and would definitely be curious to read some of this author's nonfiction.

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