Faulks's fourth novel, an English bestseller, is his second (after A Fool's Alphabet, 1993) to appear in the US: a riveting story of love—and incalculable suffering—during WW I. What could become mere period romance is transformed, in this writer's hands, into dramatized history with a power almost Tolstoyan. Faulks renders love as compellingly as war—as in the opening chapters, when 20-year-old Britisher Stephen Wraysford, on business in Amiens, falls passionately in love with the childless and unhappily married Isabelle Azaire, nine years his senior, and steals her away. This is in 1910, and when Isabelle, secretly pregnant, suffers from overwhelming guilt, she abandons Stephen, returning to her unloving husband; six years later, Wraysford is near Amiens again, now as a Lieutenant (soon Captain) with the British Expeditionary Force, preparing for battle in what is to be the butchery of the Somme valley. Isabelle and Wraysford will meet briefly again—and both will be changed forever by the catastrophic war about to sweep over humanity, changing entire generations. Faulks's depictions of war in the trenches—and in the mazes of deadly tunnels beneath them—are extraordinary, graphic, powerful, and unsparing. Stephen will survive to war's end, and so will Isabelle, though not before both are changed beyond recognition, and doomed not to be rejoined again. The war, here, is Faulks's real subject, his stories of destroyed lives, however wrenching, only throwing its horror into greater relief and making it the more unbearable. An ending too neatly symbolic can be pardoned, while a denouement describing the birth of Wraysford's and Isabelle's great-grandson—in 1979, when their lost histories have been ferreted out by a granddaughter named Elizabeth, the new mother—is so perfectly conceived and delivered as to bring tears to the reader insufficiently steeled. Once more, Faulks shows his unparalleled strengths as a writer of plain human life and high, high compassion. A wonderful book, ringing with truth.
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