Genre: Fiction, World War 1
Reading Challenges: 9 for 100+ in 2009
"Once upon a time, there were five French Soldiers who had gone off to war, because that's the way of the world." So begins Sebastien Japrisot's haunting novel which chronicles not only the horrors of war and the endurance of love, but the ways in which World War 1 forever changed the lives of those who were caught up in the conflict.
I have already read this book several times. For some reason, I seem to find myself returning to it every few years. Japrisot's writing is so beautiful and flows so well in translation (the novel was originally written in French) that it makes me want to take language lessons so that I could enjoy his writing in his native language.
The story concerns Mathilde Donnay, an intelligent and strong-willed protagonist who happens to be confined to a wheelchair because of an early childhood injury. Don't let this detail bother you, as it certainly doesn't bother Mathilde. She has far too many fish to fry to let a little thing like partial paralysis get in her way. As a young girl, Mathilde formed a lasting friendship with a boy named Manech, who became her fiancee after their childhood friendship developed into a strong and loving relationship. At the tender age of 19, Manech was sent off to the war, serving as an infantryman on the front of the French lines. Literally driven past the point of endurance by the horrors he has witnessed, Manech arranges for an accommodating soldier in German trench to shoot him in the hand. Manech is sentenced to death for this self-mutilation, along with four other soldiers. Their sentence is to be thrown into no-man's land, the space between the French and German trenches, with no weapons and their hands tied behind their backs. What happened to Manech and his fellow inmates becomes a mystery, one which Mathilde is not willing to let remain unsolved, and spends seven years trying to uncover. In pursuing this mystery she will uncover not only Manech's ultimate fate, but also learn the stories of those who witnessed it.
This is such a beautiful novel, and Mathilde is such a likable character. Each time I read it I find myself furiously turning the pages, hoping for a resolution to lives that were so unfairly interrupted.