An elderly Belgian woman takes a bittersweet look back on her war-torn youth, deliberately (and queasily) blending carnage and romance.
Helena, the narrator of Mortier’s third novel translated into English, opens her story with extended ruminations on old age and loss—we know that her parents are dead, as are her husband, daughter and brother, though the circumstances aren’t initially made clear. Her woolly, quasi-Proustian musings on time and God test the reader’s patience, and it’s not until about 100 pages in that her story—and the reasons she postponed telling it—comes more clearly into view. At the beginning of World War I, she moved with her mother from their bourgeois family enclave in Flanders to the home of some relatives in France, where they’re safer but still close to the shelling. During one assault, the pair are comforted by a British army photographer, Matthew, whom Helena promptly falls for. Her reminiscences about her sexual awakening with him gain a gauzy eroticism that’s pitted against her memories of the grotesque impact of the war. In the latter mode, Mortier is superb, particularly in one set piece describing the death of a young girl in detail, from her playing dress-up to getting killed by a stray piece of shrapnel to Helena’s role in carrying and preparing her body for burial. The push and pull of ugliness and beauty Helena witnessed plays into her conviction about humanity’s random and godless state of existence, as the title suggests: “give us back our mealy-mouthed petit-bourgeois world,” she writes, knowing that such comforts have been stripped from her. And as the novel moves toward its mordant close, Mortier gives Helena’s hard edges a moral and emotional justification—a strong closing that justifies its wobbly beginning.
An initially ungainly but ultimately poised consideration of war’s long impact on feeling and faith.