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I’m not kidding; I have started this review at least a dozen times. I just don’t know where to begin. Barbed Wire and Roses is such a unique reading experience that I don’t think I am capable of composing anything that would do it justice.
The book is really two story lines. Stephen Conway is a young man who, like so many in times of war, is swept up by romantic notions of victory and heroism on the battlefield. He volunteers for the army in the early weeks of WWI, leaving behind a new wife and the child she unknowingly carries. As the weeks turn into months and the months into years, Stephen loses his naivety, his friends and eventually his mind under constant bombardment of the enemy.
Two generations later, Stephen’s grandson is plagued with questions regarding the war diary of a man he never knew. Seeking answers, Patrick and his sister scour the internet but can’t find a single scrap of evidence to prove Stephen Conway died in 1918 as family legend suggests. Bedeviled by the unknown, Patrick begins a journey that will lead him half way around the world in search of answers.
Stephen’s is one of the most intriguing war stories I have ever read. He is without doubt a hero but he is by no means the stereotypical personification one usually encounters. I would try to explain but I think Patrick Conway says it best, “[Stephen] is scared shitless most of the time.” Stephen’s struggle with PTSD struck a chord with me. A military wife, I remember the pre-homecoming meetings where spouses were coached on recognizing the symptoms. A few weeks after my husband’s return a marine on the same base blew his brains out after taking the life of his spouse. Living in a time and place where the disorder is considered very real I found it hard to comprehend Stephen’s situation. These men were mentally disturbed by their experiences yet many were given white feathers and still more were diagnosed fit to return to battle. It is an alarming concept flawlessly recreated under Yeldham’s pen.
Patrick’s narrative was decidedly less moving but it is not without merit. I had little sympathy for the character but I felt his experience showcased a different aspect of Yeldham’s talent. Every character Patrick encounters, no matter how insignificant has a distinct personality. Not only that, they are without exception multidimensional! Off the top of my head I can’t think of another author who has exerted so much effort in regards to the supporting cast.
The history itself captivated my attention. The last American doughboy died in February of this year fighting for a national memorial to honor the thousands of men who served in the conflict. That fact alone should tell you how much weight WWI carries in this part of the world. Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres; I am humbled to admit these were little more than names in history book prior to my reading. More than that, I was entirely ignorant of Australia’s involvement in the Great War. Needless to say I spent a fair amount of time referencing the events. Yeldham’s work is entertaining but also fascinating even for those whose knowledge extends only to a few place names and the required background reading for All Quiet on the Western Front.
Yeldham’s story is a beautiful tribute to the Lost Generation, an intensely moving novel that will haunt the reader long after the final page.