An unpublished review: Review of “THE GREAT WAR: STORIES INSPIRED BY OBJECTS FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918” – written for Children’s Books Ireland, Sept 2014

This capsule review took a lot of work and in the end wasn’t used for CBI’s Recommended Reading guide. I guess because I didn’t recommend it.

I recently have been reading some of John Buchan’s Sir Edward Leithen novels – the one which has made the biggest impression being The Dancing Floor. In this, Leithen opines:

There has been a good deal of nonsense talked about the horror of war memories and the passionate desire to bury them. The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man. There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it. At any rate that was the case with most of my friends, and it was certainly the case with me.

Whatever the precise truth of this, there is something unnerving in how the memory of WWI has become a kind of rhetorical bludgeon. The stories in this anthology ultimately struck me as manipulative and somewhat self-serving. Writing about The Horror Of War can be a rather cheap short cut to profundity.

VARIOUS AUTHORS

THE GREAT WAR: STORIES INSPIRED BY OBJECTS FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR 1914-1918

WALKER BOOKS 2014 (HBK) UK RRP £12.99 ISBN978-1-4063-5377-8

As the First World War is now entirely lost to living memory, stories are crucial in shaping our perception of this conflict. The popular view of the First World War changed over the course of the Twentieth Century, with largely discredited histories such as that of Alan Clark on “lions led by donkeys”, and the likes of “Oh What A Lovely War” and “Blackadder” forming popular views of the conflict. Stories are clearly crucial in the continuing evolution of remembrance.

This collection uses artefacts of the War as prompts for each story by a leading Young Adult author. Some of the stories are contemporaneous to the War, others are set in later decades and explore the impact of memory and the intergenerational legacy of the conflict.  John Boyne’s “The Country You Called Home”, inspired by a recruiting poster for the Tyneside Irish Battalion, illustrates some of the conflicting identities that were at play in Ireland during the conflict.

Overall, most of the stories are somewhat restrained, with a sense of solemnity that too often tips into overreverence for the theme. The exceptions are Timothée de Fombelle’s “Captain Rosalie”, inspired by a Victoria Cross, and Ursula Dubosarsky’s “Little Wars”, inspired by a French toy soldier, both of which manage to be true to the subject matter without being cowed by it.  The stories contemporary to the War are generally more effective than the rather pat approach of those set decades after the events, in which the object too often serves as a deus ex machina. 

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