Well, I wished I could give this at least 2 stars, but I can't get myself to do so. I'm quite thoroughly exasperated and riled in too many ways to do...moreWell, I wished I could give this at least 2 stars, but I can't get myself to do so. I'm quite thoroughly exasperated and riled in too many ways to do so.
There will be spoilers; be warned if you open them you'll know the end.
Maybe there are writers who are capable of doing away with basic writing rules and coming up with a good book, but Barry certainly is not the one in my personal opinion. I was dead tired of his pretentious prose and ceaseless cliched or overly smart similes after the first half dozen pages. His God-style narrative was all over the place, prattling about and preening like some senile auntie with a bad case of lingual diarrhea. If there was a way to use just one adverb in a sentence, Barry found it in himself to use two or even three instead, and he was exactly as plentiful with his adjectives. If he didn't use irritating similes, it were metaphors or even more convoluted structures. Foreshadowing was done with such a heavy hand that you spotted it when it happened and groaned when it was borne out. There wasn't a clean or elegant sentence in the whole book.
In consequence this created a fog of distraction and drivel separating me quite thoroughly from the characters. I didn't care fig about any of them(view spoiler)[, even Willie's death left me completely cold, especially as cheap tricks, such as a suddenly procured petty letter from a soldier pal (which wouldn't ever have made it through censoring, even if anyone at the time would have behaved like that!) and a near miss with the relevant hospital stay and the golden-hearted nurse, were used to dramatise it (hide spoiler)].
The plot was a dime a dozen, even though the angle of the Irish volunteers could have been used to create a good, a different war novel. Barry used this instead for cheap parlour tricks, such as adding artificial conflicts and drama to the book's end.
It's the story told so many times: virginal boy volunteers for silly or idealistic reasons, finds his manhood, death, fear, terror and heroism over the next years, sees his share of atrocities and stupidities (view spoiler)[and is killed the last moment for his own foolishness of committing a needless humane act, of course without being able to make it up with his father as another tearjerking device (hide spoiler)].
There wasn't a WWI cliche Barry didn't exploit, such as the SAD, singing at Christmas, faithless family and friends at home, but it has all been done much better by others. Particularly exasperating were the factual errors which riddled the book, such as the repeated mention of mustard gas employed long before it was manufactured, with its effects being faultily described as well. Actions which would have resulted in quite different consequences in the real army, and representations (SAD) which belittled and denied what took place in reality.
Something which really got my goat is how Barry "dumbed down" everything to represent a commoner/working class lad. That was done in such an arrogant manner, that I found it setting my teeth on edge. Barry's fascination with penises, peckers, clap-ridden whores (another gimmick) and soldiers pissing and shitting themselves didn't add realism, at least not the way he wrote it. Instead it just came over as another abuse of data.
I never developed any attachment to one of the characters in this book, no sympathy, no compassion or pity. I never found myself caring about what took place, and the many described atrocities bored me. The whole book was reeking with self-love and self-agenda, borne out by the repeated use of cheap manipulations instead of honest storytelling.
Something which needs specific address:
Barry did not write men of 1914-1918, he wrote modern men and how they would have behaved transposed to former time. There were so many instances where the behaviour he described was quite clearly modern (e.g. the backstabbing petty reaction of one of his pals, but also the open and acknowledged fear, something people then didn't do, the behaviour of the Irish SAD), that this was a constant itch while I read.
Without the facts got so wrong and a more sympathetic treatment of the main character I might have given this 2*, but needlessly engineering them for the scare and this arrogant treatment of working class people decided me to go with the 1*.
And as I feel I have to explain my gripe about style, here some examples of what I talk about:
The winter sleet bit into the Dublin cab-men, where they gathered in their mucky gabardines by the Round Room in Great Britain Street. The stony face of the old building remained indifferent, with its strange decoration of ox-skulls and draperies.
The new babies screeched inside the thick grey walls of the Rotunda Hospital. Blood gathered on the nurses' white laps like the aprons of butchers.
He was a little baby and would be always a little boy. He was like the thin upper arm of a beggar with a few meagre bones shot through him, provisional and bare.
When he broke from his mother he made a mewling sound like a wounded cat, over and over.
This is the first half page and he manages to cram 3 similes (two tired ones and a pretentious one) and 1 metaphor into a mere 115 words (or 4 sentences). He also manages to foreshadow the threatening war with such a heavy hand, that if this were a cheap movie you'd have foreboding music score right there. That's a feat to do in but 115 words.
Here's another example:
Death was a muddle of sorts, things thrown in their way to make them stumble and fall. It was hard and hard again to make any path through the humbled souls. The quick rats maybe had had their way with eyes and lips; the sightless sockets peered at the living soldiers, the lipless teeth all seemed to have just cracked mighty jokes. They were seriously grinning. Hundreds more were face down, and turned on their sides, as if not interested in such awful mirth, showing the gashes where missing arms and legs had been, their breasts torn away, and hundreds and hundres of floating hands, and legs, and big heavy puddles of guts and offal, all mixed through the loam and sharded vegetation. And as solid as the ruined flesh was the smell, a stench of a million rotted pheasants, that settled on their tongues like a liquid.
Now compare this big sauce of words meant to describe the horrors of death and carnage with a mere few short sentences written by Guy Chapman, who actually was there and describes practically the same basic scene of walking across a field of dead:
My eye caught something white and shining. I stooped. It was the last five joints of a spine. There was nothing else, no body, no flesh.
One is the description of someone enamoured with his own voice, the other is spare, truly horrific and restrained elegance driving home the salient point of it.
I could give further examples, but I think this is quite enough to illustrate what I talk about.
I stumbled across The Backwash of War while looking for accounts and diaries from medical personnel.
Already then I had been aware of something curious...moreI stumbled across The Backwash of War while looking for accounts and diaries from medical personnel.
Already then I had been aware of something curious in some of the (nurses') diaries I had been reading. You get to think, and it's maintained then as now, that all these nurses, whether professionals or VADs, were "angels in white", relieving the pain, sadnesses and stress of the freshly wounded soldiers, or holding their hands as they died. That sort of thing, the propaganda.
However, while there were a very few accounts which clearly showed very compassionate nurses, the vast majority were anything but. Some of these diaries came over as downright cold, distracted even, as if the patients were a nuisance, some disturbence to whatever else for they actually had undertaken this work.
It was quite awful considering all those broken men, shuttled through the medical system like so much barely alive meat and treated without much compassion at all. I was puzzled. I mean, why would anyone risk their life and well-being, ostensibly to help, only to treat the wounded patients worse than one would treat cattle on the way to the slaughterbank?
So, I came upon La Motte's small booklet, started reading and my jaw dropped so far under the table, I had to go hunt for it. This book is dripping with the most vicious kind of sarcasm and cynicism you can imagine. It is red-hot aflame, aggressive, so brutal that you back off a bit for fear it bites you, and badly at that!
Ellen La Motte is clearly very very angry about a lot of what happened during her time at the front. She tells it in short vignettes, the length of a letter, and she doesn't spare anyone. Not the cold fellow nurses, either too religious to dress a naked man, or too intent on meeting an officer for marriage, or simply out at the front to be away from a stifling home. Not the many callous surgeons, often experimenting on the fresh meat cycled through their OP theatres and wards, or testing how much the human body could deal with before dying. The army, which on one hand forces nurses and doctors to put together the deserters, so they can be shot, or pinning medals on the chests of those about to die. The soldiers and the veterans themselves, and those gullible people at home. She gave them all her anger and rage.
Acid will drip hotly from your brains after reading, but I finally grasped why so many accounts of medical people read so very curiously. It took another book, Not So Quiet...: Stepdaughters of War, also written by a woman, an ambulance driver, to set matters really into perspective for me. Because--I have to confess--I initially thought La Motte had to be way over the top.
Smith settles the score with her book, however. La Motte quite clearly was even comparatively mild in her accusations and descriptions. She also was absolutely truthful, as Smith's book bears out by referring to many exact same things, just from another perspective.
These two women have helped me to a deeper insight into what really was taking place at the front and directly behind it during the Great War than practically everyone else put together, maybe with the exception of several of the war artists.
It is by the way absolutely not astonishing that both books, La Motte's and later Smith's were forbidden rsp. taken out of print. They both do what George Scott Atkinson demands in his A Soldier's Diary: that the truth be told to the public without belittling it.(less)
This book was first published in 1930, originally planned as being a spoof on Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front from the point of view of a wo...moreThis book was first published in 1930, originally planned as being a spoof on Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front from the point of view of a woman. Written under the pen name Helen Zenna Smith by Evadne Price, an Australian journalist, these are the novelised war diaries of Winnifred Young, a British ambulance driver.
This is a masterpiece, no less.
Don't expect heroic VADs, even more heroic soldiers, stiff British lips and glory. Don't even expect the lately so favoured "neutralised" point of view by modern-day historians hell-bent on making the Great War more common and more palatable, so we can cheerfully once again send lots of troops to their deaths and to do their killing. No, here you get it served hot, hard, harsh, cynical like hell itself and with a language which will grip your heart, after it broke bones and rent flesh to get at that muscle. Yes, this book is very dark and no, there is not even a fragment of relief to be had when it ends.
Imagine a girl on the driver's seat of a truck, out in the open, cold night, in winter, with some dazed impaired soldier at her side, straight in from the trenches, and 6 stretchers and further wounded and shellshocked men in the back, with one of them screaming his head off in pain, and she wishes he would die, right now, because he is bound to set off all the mad and shellshocked among her passengers, while she has to listen to them killing each other back in the van. Just imagine.
Foremostly this is a very realistic look at aspects of the Great War which don't generally get much notice, such as that there were women serving as ambulance drivers, but also at how the people at home reacted to what was taking place, at why so many veterans never talked about their experiences, what the carnage engendered and what it killed in the minds and hearts of participants, how values got completely destroyed and what mattered and what didn't anymore matter to these people.
That's something I find particularly fascinating about this book, because so many later efforts blithely interpret that for the veterans. This here is instead a look straight into the minds of them. You get to see what was taking place behind all those masks they wore for the outside world to see. What is more, you get to understand why they inevitably wore and had to wear masks behind which they hid their true thoughts.
I'll rank this right along with George Atkinson's A Soldier's Diary , which also managed to drive home that these people were far from untouched by what they experienced. If something truly pervades those early memoirs, then it is the fear of being known to be afraid. In an interview a war veteran stated:
"You were not frightened going forward," said Ralph Langley, "it was when you stopped. But you were afraid to show fear. It's difficult to explain how hard you became."
This went for these women as well. Often to their detriment and it leads directly to the refusal of truly dealing with what took place right after the war, something today so many people believe is sign of them exaggerating a lot at a later stage, while right afterwards they allegedly were matter-of-fact and normal about everything:
"In the 1920s and 1930s, I didn't think about it," said Ralph Langley. "Now I think about it. Just over the last few years." David Watson, who had seen almost all the worst episodes of the war, said: "It was another world within you. ... I never discussed it with anyone from 1918 until 1979. It was useless to tell people at home. They couldn't understand."
It's been distasteful for a long time now for me to be reading recent evaluations of memoirs and the Great War by people reinterpreting what they refused to grasp. Not So Quiet...: Stepdaughters of War actually makes me understand the mindset behind these revisions of history, it's shown in it's infant stage with all those disbelieving people at home, as well as within the mindset of such as the B.F. (a fellow driver of "Nellie"), and it can be read quite directly in the responses of veterans like those I cited above. However, understanding doesn't mean condoning or liking.
Which is why this book is such a masterpiece. Some learn something new, others finally understand, and others yet are forced to look into a mirror. (less)
We all know what happened to the likes of Sassoon and Graves, those gentlemanly, Oxbridge-educated officers whose "nerves gave out", diagnosed with ne...moreWe all know what happened to the likes of Sassoon and Graves, those gentlemanly, Oxbridge-educated officers whose "nerves gave out", diagnosed with neurasthenia and treated in a halfway humane, halfway understanding manner mainly because they were upper middle class or upperclass, well-bred and well-educated. Still thought, as was such a rampant thinking then, that the greater sensibility of the noble and refined classes gave leave to stronger nervous and emotional reactions.
This book concentrates however on the poor sods of the other ranks who, denuded of any understanding from those who stayed at home or those officers commanding them from the plushy chairs, first were refused their proper diagnosis of shell-shock, then quickly hidden in asylums for the insane, rather than properly treated.
As a result the content is, in hindsight, quite heartbreaking and I found myself gritting my teeth rather often at the class-driven disregard and callousness directed at people who indeed had been largely led to the Big Meatgrinder in France and other parts of Europe like sheep to the slaughterbank, and who, when they did their bit alright and even managed not to end up as a casualty of needless attrition, weren't even properly cared for. And don't say they didn't all know better, what this book really does is show in detail the cruelty and callousness of classdriven medicine with all its prejudices.
A great and interesting read, recommended for everyone interested in shell-shock and the other ranks.(less)
This was hard to finish. Where the author recounts simple and basic things and puts aside his almost fanatic pro-war propaganda, this account is quite...moreThis was hard to finish. Where the author recounts simple and basic things and puts aside his almost fanatic pro-war propaganda, this account is quite readable and imparts a few worthwhile insights.
But the rest is barely bearable to take in and reminded me a lot of fascist texts of the same era also written by participants in the Great War. In a way it explains how so shortly after the first there could be a second war, given such tendencies.
What shocked me most was the complete lack of insight into what was taking place with and within the invalids of the Great War. Even for someone not remotely knowledgeable about repression, peer pressure or PTSD it should be clear what was being done to those men.
Many other accounts of the war and the time right after show us men galore who were absolutely aware of the fact that their (continued) suffering was being swept under the rug, that society turned away from them, negated them and often even locked them up behind the conveniently closed doors of eugenics-influenced institutions.
Great Britain was the one participant in the Great War completely failing to have a public discourse and acknowledgement of the injuries done to its soldiers. Which resulted, almost needless to say, not just in men suffering severely from PTSD well into their old age, but men denied a true sense of being home and so many being done out of pensions, too incapacitated by the "get on with it" and peer-enforced gaiety to even fight for them.
To see this glorified with Christian zealotry in full brunt leaves an impressively bad after-taste, especially when compared to such insightful and self-analytical books like George Scott Atkinson's A Soldier's Diary. Written by another British participant, in the same time frame, it shows remarkably modern insights into what went on around him even while in the trenches. His distaste of how the public treated the veterans along with his own inability to own up to his feelings in direct communication is a striking closure of that account.
Juxtaposing the two explains not just my loathing for Dawson's book, but also for his attempted manipulation of the reader, which he and his father even owned up to.(less)
Too revisionist for comfort. It all depends on which accounts you select for what you want to say. This selection is very one-sided and defends warfar...moreToo revisionist for comfort. It all depends on which accounts you select for what you want to say. This selection is very one-sided and defends warfare way beyond what people truly said or were allowed to say.(less)