The battlefields of World War I give birth to two different, but related, schemes to swindle grieving French families out of their money.
It’s November 1918, and word is that an armistice is nigh: French soldiers on the battlefield are keenly aware that they may be going home. Thus it's with great dismay that Albert Maillard finds himself back in the fight following the shooting of two soldiers, "an old man and a kid," who were sent on a reconnaissance mission by Lt. Henri d'Aulney-Pradelle. When Albert comes across their bodies in the ensuing battle, he realizes the officer shot his own men in the back to restart the fighting, but before he can tell anyone, he finds himself buried alive after d'Aulney-Pradelle pushes him into a shell crater that then collapses on him. That's when he meets fellow soldier Edouard Pericourt, who digs him out and resuscitates him and who is then wounded himself when he catches a piece of shrapnel in the face. The shrapnel wound is terrible—it "ripped away his lower jaw; below his nose is a gaping void"—but Edouard, the artistic son of a rich man, refuses to allow any type of reconstructive surgery. He lets his family think he's dead so they won't have to see him with his terrible injury. Albert keeps him alive and, when he's released from the hospital, stays with him out of a sense of duty. Together, the two men concoct a scam to support themselves by selling war memorials they don't intend to build, while d'Aulney-Pradelle, who has married Edouard’s sister, Madeleine, becomes involved in another scam to rebury French soldiers in undersized coffins. Lemaitre’s tale is carefully researched, and most of the story’s value lies in its historical authenticity. The book is much too long and often repetitive, and the character of Edouard is both bizarre and unsympathetic: Lemaitre never establishes a reason why he would refuse further medical intervention.
The battlefield and hospital scenes convey Lemaitre’s mastery of imagery, but his characters—Edouard in particular—fail to arouse much empathy in readers.