Heart on my sleeve when it comes to this book review …
Just read this on Tor.com, and I get it completely:
Lately, it’s really difficult to be enthusiastic about books. Perhaps I’ve read too many of them. Perhaps—though less likely—I haven’t read enough, and if I read a few more, the enthusiasm will come back.
I have been like this numerous times in my reading life, reading in all sorts of genres (including that genre called literary fiction). My mate Stephen and I would swap books and lists of writers, trying to find that special something that makes that great experience known as reading, exceptional.
The recommendation I am about to give originally came, I think, from my wife’s octogenarian uncle, who never leads me astray. Still, I do not trust enough. It starts in the First World War, and I have read so many so serious so earnest books about the Great War.
But dear friend, how fortunate that I did doubt, for a pleasure deferred is a … something. Of course, you could say that about anything, but then, how much pleasure is left to me? I may never enjoy another book.
Now I worry that you have read it already, and after this build up, that you will be cross with me. It is no obscure tome I refer to, it is a prize winner and something of a best seller.
“The Great Swindle” (Au revoir la-haut) by Pierre Lemaitre was a pure delight. It grabbed me and dragged me in, and I was off on an adventure that I did not want to finish. I cared about everybody so much, and the trick is, the novel made me think that this came from some quality of my own, some inner sympathy indicative of my nature as a sensitive being, when of course, it is a result of pure craft.
There is no hiding the horror of the Great War, it is simply that the horror is not unrelieved. But then, even when it is relieved, when it is covered to protect us, the mask (and I use the term deliberately) is always ready to fall, to remind us of the horrors within us all, we who are used to our flesh covering up all sorts of monstrosities. The plumage is extravagant indeed, as wondrous as that of any peacock, a pleasure to behold.
I worried for these characters, I urged them on in their cynical exploits. I wanted them to succeed at
Lemaitre makes it all personal. When a character dies, we die with them, we are taken to the point of final darkness. We are shown that no act of heroism goes unpunished. We go into the hell of the battlefield, we descend into the grave, we are there with individuals and their own personal wounds, each suffering in their own way. Only after that are we taken on a tour that lasts the whole book of the industrial nature of the war, the huge machine that swallows men and lives and chews them up. A machine designed to produce a crop – corpses – that need transplanting. And if reading my words you think too dark, too dark, then I have failed, because of course it is, but it is also very, very funny. The extravagance is wonderful. There are plots and escapades and villains and at least one genuine (if stinking and misanthropic) hero, and lots of failures. The tension experienced by one of our main protagonists made me put the book down for a while, only to pick it up again almost instantly, because I needed to know what happened next. The great relief I felt at his small pleasures, the little release he found in his life of scurrying and caring and keeping just ahead of the … not wolves, but sabre toothed tigers at his door.
If you want to read a proper review, look here, and also here. I like how the reviewers pick up on M. Lemaitre’s experience as a crime writer, and his use of pace and craft and great readable works of the 19th century. I also like very much that M. Lemaitre’s first novel was published when he was 55 – he spent his life teaching and sharing his love of literature, and then went on to do another thing, something that he is good at and loves. (Great news for those of us terrified by a line from Stephen King, “And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty”.)
Dear reader, I am at rubbish at reviews. But perhaps a little of my enthusiasm for this book comes through, and perhaps you will trust me more than I trusted Uncle Terry (with far less reason, I add and admit immediately). I can only hope and pray, for I had a wonderful time.
My joy only rose when I found (hinted at late in the book) that there are two volumes to follow, perhaps with none of the main characters, but if they are full of the same spirit and demonstrate such ability with craft, then dear reader, I am in. A film is now in release, but I shall wait a little while before seeing it. Of course a film cannot convey the main sense of the novel – smell; no, stench. And if you think a book cannot convey it either, you are very wrong.