A readable fictional introduction to the Great War for those who know nothing about it but inessential for anyone who’s read...

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1914

Four young Frenchmen confront the grim reality of trench warfare in a spare, elliptical novel from Goncourt-winner Echenoz (Lightning, 2011, etc.).

We see just what they are leaving behind in the idyllic scene that opens the book, as Anthime bicycles in the hills of the Vendée region, pausing to view a panorama of pastures and villages under the August sun. Then the church bells begin ringing, and he returns to the town square to learn that war has been declared. “It won’t last longer than two weeks,” says his intimidating brother Charles, but of course, readers know better. We follow Anthime and his pals Padioleau, Bossis and Arcenel to the barracks (where arrogant Charles commandeers the best-fitting uniform) and on parade past cheering citizens. They include Blanche, whose family runs the factory where Anthime and Charles work; both brothers are in love with her, but she prefers Charles. It’s a nasty twist of fate that Blanche’s successful attempt to get Charles transferred away from danger in the infantry results in his death in a plane crash, leaving her to bear his child alone and unmarried in January. Bogged down in the trench line that “had suddenly congealed…from Switzerland to the North Sea,” Anthime is congratulated by his comrades on losing his arm to a piece of shrapnel; it’s a “good wound” that will extricate him from the senseless bloodshed Echenoz matter-of-factly describes. His companions fare less well: Bossis is gruesomely killed, Arcenel shot for desertion and Padioleau is blinded by gas. As the author himself remarks, “[a]ll this has been described a thousand times,” and Echenoz doesn’t offer anything new in the way of character or insight to justify his retelling, though his restrained, elegant prose (nicely translated by Coverdale) remains a pleasure.

A readable fictional introduction to the Great War for those who know nothing about it but inessential for anyone who’s read Ernest Hemingway or John Roderigo Dos Passos.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59558-911-8

Page Count: 128

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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