The catastrophic Battle of the Somme, at the center of World War I, is seen through the eyes of four fighting men whose destinies interconnect, in a sensitive addition to the fiction of the Great War.
Although formulaic in structure, British writer Speller’s (The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, 2012, etc.) third novel nevertheless offers an affecting account of tragic events. Her four Allied combatants include French blacksmith Jean-Baptiste Mallet; two Englishmen, shopworker and bicycle fanatic Frank Stanton and music student Benedict Chatto; and Brit-turned–American industrialist Harry Sydenham. Opening in 1913, Speller presents conventional panoramas of London, Paris, New York and rural life at a time of strict class boundaries. Jean-Baptiste is a laborer; Stanton is in trade; Chatto has a privileged education; but Harry is the loftiest of them all, a baronet, even though he has run away from his roots to start again in the U.S. Harry’s secrets, Benedict’s half-acknowledged homosexuality and Jean-Baptiste’s betrayal of a suspected spy propel the narrative through the outbreak of war and the men’s establishment in differing fighting ranks and roles. And then the great, misconceived battle arrives, a failed attack on an inconceivable scale which drives the men forward to fate, truth, irony and even hope.
By foregrounding, with poetic intensity, four individual experiences, Stiller implicitly acknowledges the countless who fought in WWI. A well-crafted tribute.