I am not big on First World War history. The war it is not as captivating to me as the Second World War probably because of the static, stalemate nature of the war and the utter senselessness, not only of why the world went to war, but how long outdated tactics were used and the number of lives wasted. The First World War was also what I studied at school (until I dropped history) and the way it was presented, dates after dates, without any personal stories, meant I never could really relate to the conflict. It wasn’t until I read Pat Barker’s phenomenal Regeneration Trilogy and learnt about the likes of Siegfried Sassoon that I started to have any interest at all. Unlike the Second World War which still fascinates me greatly..
As I’ve written about numerous times I rank Paul Ham as one of the best Australian historians writing at the moment so I had no hesitations about reading his take on the First World War. Not that this book is a book about the war. Instead Paul Ham tells the story of how the world went to war and dispels many of the myths that have been perpetuated (particularly by high school history teachers!)
The popular version of the origins of the First World War is that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered a number of treaties that led to Germany invading France and the world going to war. Paul Ham shows us that the assassination, rather than being the spark that ignited the war, was an event exploited by a small few in power who wanted war. Who chose war. Who would have found another reason, another event, to trigger the whole catastrophe. In doing so Ham also dispels the myth that Europe slept walked to war in August 1914.
Ham follows the ebb and flow of diplomacy in Europe in the years leading up to The Great War. He demonstrates that the huge divisions that seemed to cause the war were not always in evidence and that even as late as early 1914 problems between the powers of Europe were not insurmountable. However a feeling of war’s inevitability, going back a decade, seemed to cloud everyone’s judgement. This led to an escalation in high stakes diplomacy (and in other cases a complete lack of diplomacy) which coupled together with miscommunication and misunderstanding brought about a devastating war that could have been prevented. Instead those in power chose war and the world as it was known until 1914 ended.
1914 was a pivotal year in human history. It led to the Russian Revolution and The Cold War and was the seed that allowed Nazism and the horror of the Second World War to grow. It changed societies and countries around the globe. It was the beginning of the end of empires and monarchies as the world had known them. Paul Ham deftly and expertly guides us through all the pivotal events that led to this cataclysm and in doing so shows us that lessons can still be learnt one hundred years on.
Classification: First World War , European history
Format: Hardback (240mm x 163mm x 64mm)
Imprint: William Heinemann Australia
Publisher: Random House Australia
Publish Date: 1-Oct-2013
Country of Publication: Australia
I haven’t read Pat Barker since reading The Regeneration trilogy. In fact I’ve hardly read any First World War fiction since then because it was so good that everything else pales in comparison (Birdsong and Three Day Road excluded and I am reliably informed I should read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way).
I never quite connected with this book or the characters. The three central characters are Elinor Brooke, a young artist attending the Slade School of Art in 1912 where she meets fellow students Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant. Elinor is very close to her brother Toby, too close in fact, but he’s also the only person she truly connects with, which also makes it hard to connect with her as the reader. We barely meet Kit at Slade and Paul is almost an after thought.
The story then jumps to 1917 and we finally get to know Paul a little better but still not fully. He is recently returned from the front with a wounded leg. We find out that he has had an affair with Elinor in the intervening years and that she has also become close with Kit. But the war has of course changed everything. Toby is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. Kit, who was in his unit, seems to know what happened but he has been badly wounded and disfigured and will not talk about what happened.
The story explores the convergence of art, war and surgery but you feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Unlike Regeneration where you explored the effects of shell shock and the experimental treatments you don’t feel satisfied or engaged with what the novel was attempting to achieve. The big reveal of the circumstances surrounding Toby is also flat.
The back of the book claims this to be “Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet”. Unfortunately it isn’t. Barker is a great writer but for me this novel misses the mark and I think she going to be forever trapped by the shadow of her truly great previous work especially when writing about the First World War.
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback (198mm x 129mm x 19mm)
Imprint: Penguin Books Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Feb-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
In an attempt to get myself across the whole eBook/eReading thing I am trying to alternate my reading between a physical book and an eBook. One of the benefits of this is, more often than not, I end up reading a current or older book rather than an advanced one. I wanted to road test Readings’ new eBook platform, Booki.sh. BEREFT jumped out at me as one of those books I knew I should have read last year but just didn’t get around to. And now I had the excuse I needed to read it.
Set in the rural NSW town of Flint 16-year-old Quinn Walker is accused of his sister Sarah’s murder. In a panic he runs away, eventually joining the Australian Army and serving at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. His family is told that he has been killed. After the war Quinn decides to return home and confront the truth about what happened to his sister, his accusers and his family.
BEREFT is a rural, gothic masterpiece that is sorrowful, poignant and keeps you enthralled and guessing until the final pages. It is about personal and collective devastation, revenge and redemption and its consequences; close and personal as well as massive and far away. There is also a ghostliness to the story. Quinn (and the world as a whole) is haunted by death that seems to surround everything; from murder to war to a flu epidemic. The present is blurred by the past and a longing for what has been lost. The harshness and beauty of the Australian landscape adds brilliantly to this haunting atmosphere.
I hope this book wins a tonne of prizes this year. It is already up for The Indie Award (which I also cheering on P.M. Newton’s THE OLD SCHOOL) and I am sure it will be on The Miles Franklin shortlist. I am so glad I gave myself a second chance to read this.
Watch my video review here