Members of a wealthy British family with German roots meet with prejudice and hardship as World War I cuts its terrible swath through Europe.
In Williams’ (Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte, 2014, etc.) epic novel, the first of a planned trilogy, the de Witt family is living patriarch Rudolf’s dream of British aristocracy: country estate, numerous servants, educated sons, and a daughter betrothed to a nearby lord. Despite his successful meat business, however, Rudolf is very much an outsider, having been born in Germany, and as the country declares war in 1914, British citizens of German descent are treated as spies and enemies. Rudolf is imprisoned, and his wife, Verena, struggles to maintain normalcy on the estate as servants, rations, and money disappear. Their children respond to wartime in different ways: selfish Arthur remains in Paris; sensitive Michael joins the army with Tom, one of the servants; Emmeline elopes with a dissenter; and Celia, the youngest, finds herself trapped in the empty estate with her depressed mother until she runs away and becomes an ambulance driver in France. Of course, the horrors of the war change each of them irreparably. The novel is quietly impressive. Early on, it echoes of classic novels (Atonement, Brideshead Revisited), and the story seems almost too familiar, but as the narrative develops and the characters deepen, it’s hard to put down. Celia is the center of the narrative, and her developing self-awareness as she evolves from pampered young debutante to war volunteer forces the reader to imagine not only the family torn apart, not only the country splintered, but the individual souls, young and old, male and female, traumatized by “the war to end all wars.”
A new perspective on an old war. Gripping, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and, above all, human.