A rigorous work of historical fiction weighed down by a bloated plot.

Downhill from Vimy

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.  

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4602-8115-4

Page Count: 426

Publisher: FriesenPress

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2016

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While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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