Australian transplant and longtime Paris resident Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, 2011) has spent years trying to discover what it was that changed his grandfather so much when he returned from World War I.
Grandpa Archie left his young family, rejected his former job and never mentioned the war; he only occasionally said, ça ne fait rien (it makes no difference). Was he injured; did he suffer or commit horrors; did he desert; did he fall in love? During his many years in Paris, the author only found a few facts with the help of a military historian. Within Archie’s story, the author intersperses descriptions of Paris and its artistic occupants during the Great War. For most Parisians, French or not, the war didn’t seem real; it was a show, entertainment for their picnics. Most residents were only concerned with the moment. Despite shortages, the theater muddled on, dinner parties were noted for the clever conversations rather than the cooking, and bombs were mostly ignored. Only the French could make austerity chic. “Far from rejecting pain,” he writes, “[Paris] embraced it, transformed it.” Throughout the narrative, Baxter jumps back and forth to England, where the Australian forces were based before traveling to the front and returned for recovery. The no-nonsense Aussies were quick to start a fight and didn’t take any guff from anyone, even officers, and the botched leadership at the beginning of the war would no doubt have caused a mutiny. This book is as much about searching for Grandpa Archie’s life as it is about Paris and England during the war. In lesser hands, the narrative could have easily become confusing, even boring, but Baxter carries it off with aplomb.
An enjoyable, swift read, and the author’s final solution to Archie’s wartime dilemma makes it as fun as a work of historical fiction.