No beating about the bush here, this is without a doubt one of my favourite books, I have read it several times, and in fact this copy is one I bought for Mum on a visit to London in October 2002, and she has noted two additional dates of reading inside the front cover, I know she also loved it.
Sebastian Faulks is an outstanding writer, a proper master of delicate understatement, descriptive passages beyond comparison, and with a genuine spirit of empathy and compassion for the young men en-mired in the mud and horror of the trenches. But this book is not only about warfare and it’s horrific consequences for both the body, mind and soul; it is also a moving, erotic and deeply emotional love story, twice over.
It is the first of a trilogy of novels, published in 1993, and according to the author, written because he felt not enough had been written about the deep effects of war on the psyche of those involved – something he certainly addresses in this wonderful book.
We meet the central character, Stephen Wraysford, in the quiet manufacturing city of Amiens, a couple of years before the outbreak of war, where he has come to observe the manufacturing processes in the factory of M. Rene Azaire, and lives with the Azaire family. Mme. Azaire is much younger than her husband, step mother to his two children, and somewhat mystified by how she has ended up in this marriage, which Stephen, already attracted to her, discovers is abusive. They begin a passionate affair, against a backdrop of family outings to places like Thiepval, names which will acquire a whole new and horrific resonance in a few short years time.
In the second part of the book, we are moved forward to 1916, deep in the mire of the trenches, with Stephen an officer, leading his men in the same area of France – the contrast is of course both marked and deeply poignant as they fight across fields he picnicked in with the Azaire family. Here we also pick up the tale of a tunneler, Jack Firebrace, and my goodness, those tunnels under the trenches… what a nightmare.
And we have a third narrative, in the late 1970’s, with Stephen’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, who has uncovered Stephen’s journals and deciphers them, while having an affair with a married man.
I really don’t want to tell you any more. If you have already read and enjoyed this, you will know that it is the surprise encounters that make it such a moving novel – if not, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that I whole-heartedly recommend it, and the other two books too, ‘The Girl at the Lion D’Or’ and ‘Charlotte Gray’. Both of which I intend to re-read very soon.
As always, I am looking to gift this beautiful book forward,so if you’d like this book of Mum’s, please get in touch either through the Facebook page and group, or Instagram, where you can also let me know what YOU thought of this great read!