Vanessa Gebbie: Storm Warning – Echoes of Conflict (2010) Literature and War Readalong February 2016

Storm Warning

Very often short story collections are just that – collections of stories that may or may not have a few themes in common. Most of the time, the themes are different, while the voice stays the same. Not so in Vanessa Gebbie’s stunning collection Storm Warning – Echoes of Conflict. The themes —war and conflict— are the same in every story, but the voices, points of view, the structure, the range of these stories is as diverse as can be. That’s why this collection is one of those rare books, in which the sum is greater than its parts. Each story on its own is a gem, but all the stories together, are like a chorus of voices lamenting, accusing, denouncing, and exploring conflict through the ages and the whole world. The result is as chilling as it is powerful and enlightening. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything similar in book form and the only comparable movie, War Requiem, uses a similar technique only at the very end, during which we see  horrific original footage taken from many different wars, covering decades, and dozens of countries.

We’ve often discussed the question of how to write about war in the Literature and War Readalong and I’ve said it before – if I put away a book and am left with a feeling of  I-wish-I’d-been-there, then the book is a failure in terms of its anti-war message. I don’t think one should write about war and give readers a similar, pleasant frisson, they get when they read crime. I can assure you, you won’t have a reaction like this while reading Storm Warning. Without being too graphic, Vanessa Gebbie’s message is clear – there’s no beauty in war. There’s no end to war either. Even when a conflict is finished, it still rages on in the minds of those who suffered through it. Whether they were soldiers or civilians. War destroys bodies and souls. And—maybe one of the most important messages— war is universal. Including stories set in times as remote as the 16th century, choosing locations as diverse as South Africa, the UK, and Japan, conflicts like WWI, WWII, the Falklands war, Iraq, Vietnam, and many more, illustrates this message powerfully. Choosing from so many different conflicts also avoids falling into the trap of rating. I always find it appalling when people rate conflicts, saying this one was worse than that one. Maybe the methods are more savage in some conflicts, but they are all equally horrific.

What is really amazing in this collection is that so many of the stories get deeper meaning because they are juxtaposed with other stories. For example, there’s the story The Ale Heretics set in the 16th Century, in which a condemned heretic, awaits being burned. Burning people alive was such a savage and abominable thing to do, but just when we start to think “Thank God, that’s long gone” – we read a story about necklacing, a form of torture and execution, practiced in contemporary South Africa (possibly in other regions too), in which the victims are also burned alive. And, here too, it’s said to be in the name of the law. If I had only read the first story, it wouldn’t have been as powerful as in combination with the second.

Vanessa Gebbie’s writing is very precise, raw, expressive. As I said before, each story has a distinct voice. There are men and women talking to a dead relative, others seem to try to explain what happened to them, others accuse, many denounce. Yet, as precise as the writing is, often there’s an element of mystery as to what conflict we are reading about. While it’s mostly clear, what conflict is described, they are rarely named. Interestingly, this underlines the similarity and universality, but it also makes differences clear. When a girl talks to her dead sister Golda, mentions the Kristallnacht, we know, it’s a Holocaust story. When gas gangrene is mentioned, we know it is about WWI.

Many of you might wonder, whether the stories are not too graphic, whether the book is depressing. There’s a balance between very dark and dark stories. There’s a touch of humour here and there, even if it’s gallows’ humour, and there’s the one or the other story that’s almost uplifting like my own personal favourite Large Capacity, Severe Abuse. In this story, a Vietnam veteran lives in the basement of an apartment house for retired army officers. He’s in charge of washing their laundry which gives him an opportunity for revenge. This story illustrates also the invisibility of many veterans. They are decorated, they return, they suffer, but society doesn’t care. Some of the veterans in this collection, end up homeless. Too sum this up— the collection is not easy to read, as it’s quite explicit in showing that war mutilates bodies and souls.

Another favourite story was The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear. It’s a story that does not only illustrate the difficulties of the homecoming, but the absurdity of things that happened during the war. In this case WWI and its practice of firing soldiers for so-called cowardice.

Some of the stories describe a narrow escape like in The Salt Box, in which a dissident poet finds an unexpected ruse to destroy his poems when his house is searched.

The narrators and characters in these stories are of different gender and age. Stories that have child narrators are often particularly harrowing. There’s the one called The Wig Maker, in which a child witnesses the execution of the mother, and another one, The Strong Mind of Musa M’bele, in which the kid knows his father will be necklaced. Another kid, in Cello Strings and Screeching Metal, witnesses someone being shot while climbing the Berlin Wall.

Quite a few of the stories are more like snapshots; they are very brief, only a page or two, but there are some longer ones as well.

I must say, I’m impressed. The range of these stories is amazing. Getting voice right and distinct, is a difficult thing to do and to get it as right and as distinct in so many stories is absolutely stunning. This is certainly one of the most amazing and thought-provoking anti-war books I’ve ever read.

Should you be interested, one of the stories – The Wig Maker – is available online. Just a warning – it’s possibly the most explicit of the collection.

Vanessa Gebbie is joining our discussion, so, please, don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

 

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Storm Warning is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the French WWI novel 1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz. Discussion starts on Thursday 31 March, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong February 29 2016: Storm Warning by Vanessa Gebbie

Storm Warning

The first readalong of this year’s Literature and War Readalong 2016 is very special for several reasons. It’s the first time, I’ve included a short story collection. Then it’s the first book that deals with more than just one conflict. And— I’m particularly pleased about this— the author, Vanessa Gebbie, will join the discussion. Needless to say I’m really looking forward to the discussion and hope that many of you will join.

Since it’s a short story collection I’ve added the first sentences of the first three stories:

The Return of the Baker, Edwin Tregear

Unlike so many, I came home in July. Some of the lads got off the train at Exeter, some at Plymouth. I must have gone to sleep. I woke at Penzance, my stop, when someone shouted, “End of the line, mate.”

Storm Warning

I was on leave.

Telephone call from Istanbul, 3am, Wednesday. Woman’s voice. “StormWarning.”

Gas Gangrene

For the soldiers buried at Tyn Cot Cemetery, Flanders

It’s a sick joke, mate, looking back. You people think gas gangrene was some sort of bloating, a passing blackening of the lungs, a momentary seizing up, that it went as the clouds dispersed.

 

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie, 120 pages, UK, 2010, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Storm Warning explores the echoes and aftershocks of human conflict in a series of powerful stories in which the characters are tested, sometimes to breaking point. Gebbie pulls no punches, exploring the after-effects of atrocity and sometimes, the seeds of atrocity itself.

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The discussion starts on Monday, 29 February 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2016

Storm Warning1914The HuntersBilly Lynn's Halftime WalkAll For Nothing

A few of you have already been wondering whether or not there will be another Literature and War Readalong. As you can see, there will be another one, but, like last year, it will be a mini-edition, although I included one book more.

Storm Warning

February, Monday 29

Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie, 120 pages, UK, 2010, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Storm Warning explores the echoes and aftershocks of human conflict in a series of powerful stories in which the characters are tested, sometimes to breaking point. Gebbie pulls no punches, exploring the after-effects of atrocity and sometimes, the seeds of atrocity itself.

1914

March, Thursday 31

1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz, 120 pages France 2012, WWI

Here’s the blurb:

Jean Echenoz turns his attention to the deathtrap of World War I in 1914. Five Frenchmen go off to war, two of them leaving behind young women who long for their return. But the main character in this brilliant novel is the Great War itself. Echenoz, whose work has been compared to that of writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne, leads us gently from a balmy summer day deep into the relentless – and, one hundred years later, still unthinkable – carnage of trench warfare.

The Hunters

May, Tuesday 31

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

September, Friday 30

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

All For Nothing

November, Friday 25

All For NothingAlles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.

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Five books from four countries, covering four different wars. The books are all rather short and quite diverse. For the first time, I have included a collection of short stories. And I included the first novel on the war in Korea.

As always, I hope that many of you will feel tempted to join me.