Colin Heber-Percy's Reviews > The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and Their Families in the Great War

The Quick and the Dead by Richard van Emden
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Oct 13, 2011

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bookshelves: history

The Quick and the Dead is about the effects of total war - and the resulting catastrophic loss - on individuals and their families. Rather than a straightforward account of how the Home Front coped during World War One, the book is something of a rag tag, an accumulation of research. The author - more of an archivist or curator - deliberately steps back and lets the first hand material - letters, diaries, memorials, published accounts - speak for itself. The result is sometimes muddling; sometimes disjointed. Family narratives weave in and out of each other in a way that can lead to a sense of incoherence in the structuring. It's only towards the end of the book that the overall historical framing starts to pull everything together.

That said - the first hand accounts themselves (often quoted here at length) are so moving, so extraordinary and so painful to read that the book feels almost like a howl of hundred year old grief. Passages are genuinely hard to read.

Van Emden's decision to remain in the background makes perfect sense as a deeply compassionate and respectful response to the lives and events he's presenting.

An excellent book.

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