Levan’s (Give Us This Day, 2007) novel explores the personal wages of war, love, and sacrifice.
In 1992, when Christopher Levan, a minister, first came upon Gordon Davis, a former soldier of World War I, he found a broken man, mute and mad. Davis had languished in a veteran’s hospital for more than 70 years, but he began to communicate to Levan, however confusedly, in fits and starts. His story turns out to be heartbreaking. He was a ministry student at Wycliffe College in Toronto, on his way to the priesthood, when he enlisted in the military’s medical corps during the Great War. While passing through Montreal with his unit, he made the acquaintance of Bishop Terrance Hinks and his daughter, Joanna, with whom he fell deeply in love. The two pledged to marry once Davis finally returned to civilian life. The horrors of combat took their toll on Davis, but he conducted himself with notable bravery, participating in a battle against the German army at Vimy Ridge and in the bloodbath that was the Battle of Passchendaele. In December 1917, he and Joanna planned to meet at Halifax Harbour, but their plans were stymied due to a catastrophic explosion caused by a ship collision. When Davis couldn’t find her at their designated meeting place, he was prepared to scour the country to find her, but he became entangled in a political scandal involving a powerful priest. His loyalty to Joanna was subsequently tested in a way that has painful reverberations on the remainder of his days. Author Levan, who shares a name with the narrator, writes in a manner that evinces a masterful command of the historical period. He also unravels the romantic power of Davis’ connection with Joanna with patience and delicacy; for example, the character of Levan observes, “Something in those four days silenced [Davis], and it is my guess that it was not the war or the disaster that robbed him of speech. It was deeper than shock and hatred, and the only possibility that makes sense is love.” However, the author also makes the plot leap speedily back and forth in time, which results in a halting pace and a jarring lack of narrative momentum. Even after readers fully piece it together, the congested story will seem more convoluted than complex.
A rigorous work of historical fiction weighed down by a bloated plot.