Journalist Alex Dyer made his name covering the bloody horrors of the European trenches. Yet even after the Great War is over, he cannot shake the guilt he feels for not serving on the front lines like his dearest childhood friend, Ted Eden. Worse still, Alex cannot put to rest the emotions that gnaw at him from the inside: his feelings for Clare, Ted’s wife—a woman they both have loved more than life itself.
Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World is the last novel on WWI in this read along. For the next one we will be moving on to WWII.
This wasn’t the easiest review to write as I am in two minds about this novel. There are parts in it that are so haunting and powerful but then again there were others were I was just rolling my eyes thinking “get on with it”. Still it would be unfair to write a totally negative review because the good parts are among the best on WWI I’ve ever read.
Alex and Ted are childhood friends. They are close and attached to each other until the day Ted introduces Alex to his soon-to-be wife Clare. Very unfortunately this is a love at first sight moment for Alex and Clare. They try to fight it but, as we will see soon enough, the more the story advances, the less likely it is that they will succeed.
The marriage takes place just when the war breaks out. Ted will enlist, Alex will participate as a war correspondent and Clare will be one of the nurses in France.
The novel moves back and forth between Alex’s and Clare’s point of view. Alex sees a lot of atrocities and the descriptions are very graphic and extremely impressive without falling into the trap of being too clichéd. But since Alex isn’t fighting, it stays an outsider’s perspective. Clare’s point of view was captivating for totally different reasons. As a war nurse she has to deal with indescribable wounds and suffering. The abundance of facial wounds seems to be a trait of WWI and these parts reminded me of one of the best WWI movies I have ever seen, La chambre des officiers aka The officer’s chamber based on the eponymous novel by Marc Dugain. We seem to get an insider’s view of this truly harrowing aspect of the “Great war”. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to have been the victim of this kind of facial mutilation and to be rejected by those you loved and who once loved you. The reactions of the relatives and fiancées were often brutal. Through Clare’s eyes we also get an equally close look at what mustard gas did to those who became its victims and how they suffocated or drowned slowly.
The only men more popular than I was were the ones in wheelchairs, or those with empty sleeves pinned against their chest. Everyone wanted to talk to them, to do something for them. Children presented them with flags and in the railway stations they got free tea or coffee. It was different for the ones whose faces had been destroyed. People averted their eyes quickly, the blood flooding their skin. No one wanted to make eye contact with a disfigured soldier; they were modern-day lepers.
While the war moves on – not stopping at Christmas, as was expected – the love affair develops as well. Clare and Alex meet secretly but are finally driven apart by conflicting emotions and wishes. Alex feels he needs to tell Ted everything, while Clare wants to protect him and keep the affair secret.
Through Alex’ voice we hear what it must have been like to cover this war as a correspondent. The journalists were not allowed to tell the truth. The numbers of casualties were not mentioned nor were the biggest defeats spoken of. While Clare’s parts rather focus on individuals, Alex’ parts illustrate the enormity of the losses. He evokes the incredible amount of wounded, disfigured and killed soldiers. At moments I had the feeling of seeing all these dead men standing in one huge row before my inner eye. When we visit those cemeteries we get a feeling for those massive losses.
He imagined a thin line linking the cemeteries along the old Western Front, from the smallest graveyards hidden away within woods to those huge, silent cities on the plains where the most ferocious battles had been fought. Some bore the names given to them by the soldiers themselves – Owl Trench, Caterpillar Valley, Crucifix Corner – while others were named after the battalion who had buried their own men there. He imagined how tha line would look from the air; so thick in parts that it resembled a child’s scribble, for they were everywhere these Gardens of Stone.
The novel slowly moves towards the culminating point which is the burial of the “unknown warrior”. The name is chose deliberately as “warrior” sounded more inclusive than “soldier”. The grave which is really located in Westminster Abbey was meant to commemorate all the dead fighters of this war, not only the infantry men. The burial is one of the best and most powerful parts in this novel.
Despite all these impressive elements, I had my problems, as I said. The biggest part of the story is told by Alex. He tells Lombardi, a guy he meets in Flanders after the war, why he is so tormented, why he cannot get over the war. I didn’t get this narrative device at all. I would have preferred a more straightforward story, not this artificial telling of what happened to someone who has nothing to do with it. This was a common technique in 19th century novels but I think it doesn’t add anything to a modern novel at all. The next biggest negative aspect was the coincidence. I found it highly unlikely that Alex would meet Ted at the end. The third thing that I didn’t think well-done is the love-triangle. I think it was unnecessary that Alex and Clare had an affair. The descriptions of Alex’ feelings worked very well for me but not those of Clare. And the guilt-theme was just an element too much. Last but not least I missed Ted’s point of view.
I have a lot of questions at the end of this novel and would be curious to know what others thought.
Was this really the tone of a WWI novel? Especially the love-affair seemed very WWII to me but maybe that impression stems from the similarity to Pearl Harbor.
What about the facial wounds, does anyone know whether this was a consequence of the trenches? In The officer’s chambers, the young officer loses half of his face on the battle field, but I have really never heard so much about this type of injury from any other war.
Why do you think Carol Ann Lee left out Ted’s point of view? I think she might have risked to fall into the trap of cliché but I am not sure that’s why she chose to leave it out.
I’m really curious to read your thoughts.
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