This book as was a quick and – despite the subject matter – light read. Unfortunately, it did not do much for me: I kept thinking that I was supposed to feel more than I actually did. The book follows four separate men (three British and one French) caught up in World War I, culminating in the Battle of the Somme. Though each character has his own thread, they coincide too frequently to be credible.
The book clearly is aiming straight for the heart – as the postscript informs us, the Battle of the Somme was one of the worst military disasters to befall the British Army in terms of losses – but it falls flat. Three of the four main characters are undergoing considerable emotional turmoil at the start of the war and it is the coming to terms with themselves and their lives that resonates; the war is peripheral and merely serves as a setting. However, even this was superficial. Jean Baptiste and Harry have come to Jesus moments where they instantaneously realize how wrong they’ve been. Frank is surprisingly the most one dimensional, despite being the only character with a first person narrative; he’s not very interesting and his dialogue is stilted and unrealistic. I know this is weird but he read as that earnest , gee-whiz way British authors frequently write American characters. The most compelling narrative was Benedict, a quiet organ scholar who has a complicated relationship with his best friend, Theo. Benedict’s synesthesia is mentioned but is not explored in a meaningful way – with all the shelling, bombing and shooting, it seems like he would have gone into sensory overload.
In sum, I think it was an easy read (though there are some gruesome descriptions of injuries and general unpleasantness of trench life) but one that examined a fascinating time period and its characters’ experiences without any depth.