Timothy Findley: The Wars (1977) Literature and War Readalong April 2013

The Wars

Is it possible to write about WWI – including the trenches, the incapable high command, shell shock, gas attacks, rats, mud, facial wounds, the immense body count – and still be original and have something profound and thought-provoking to say? Before reading Timothy Findley’s  The Wars I might have said “possibly” but after finishing it, I have to say “definitely”. This novel proves that in the hands of a powerful writer anything can become extraordinary.

The Wars has an episodic structure but still tells a coherent story, exploring what happened one day, during WWI, when young Officer Robert Ross, broke the ranks, committing an act of total insubordination, shot another officer and freed dozens of horses. How did it come to this? The story is told in a circular way, starting with the end, withholding all the vital information, and then moving back to  the beginning, unfolding every step which led to that fatal day.

I said in my intro post that I was worried the book would contain a lot of animal suffering and it did but in an unusual way. The strength of Findley’s work is that he manages to show, just like Coetzee – another defender of animals – that, at the end of the day, animals and humans are equal. Both feel pain; their lives are precious and must be protected. Being alive is nothing short of a miracle.

This first quote is central in the book and illustrates perfectly what kind of person Robert Ross is

In another hole there was a rat that was alive but trapped because of the waterlogged condition of the earth that kept collapsing every time it tried to ascend the walls. Robert struck a match and caught the rat by the tail. It squealed as he lifted it over the edge and set it free. Robert wondered afterwards if setting the rat free had been a favour – but in the moment that he did it he was thinking: here is someone still alive. And the word alive was amazing.

The instances in which animals die at the hand of men who have gone crazy or are saved by compassionate men are numerous. Madness is an important topic in this novel. Not just in the sense of war is madness but because people lose their minds during battle or under attack. And often they take it out on weaker ones. Wounded Germans, prisoners or animals.

Many of the soldiers in the book question the decisions of their superiors

This – to Bates – was the greatest terror of the war: what you didn’t know of the men who told you what to do – where to go and when. What if they were mad – or stupid? What if their fear was greater than yours? Or what of they were brave and crazy – wanting and demanding bravery from you?

Life in the trenches is constant terror, trying to stay sane and attempting to survive.

Robert had only taken eight hours sleep in the last three days. He was living on chocolate bars and tea and generous portions of rum which he took from the supply wagons. His body was completely numb and his mind had shrunken to a small, protective shell in which he hoarded the barest essentials of reason.

The novel is divided in many short chapters which could be read separately but definitely work as a whole. This isn’t a collection of snapshots, it is a novel but this approach of unfolding the story in short chapters, which change point of view, narrative technique, tone and mood, make every part very powerful. Findley is probably one of the most assured writers I’ve read. This could have been difficult to read but most chapters contain strong and expressive scenes. There is far more show than tell in this book, which makes it accessible but also painful. Death, pain, loss and grief are described in a civilian setting and during war, and finally illustrate that love is all that counts. War is mad, inflicting pain is mad and treating people without respect is mad as well.

What came as a surprise were the many funny moments in this book. Rodwell is an officer who saved some injured animals after an attack

“Where did you find the hedgehog?” Robert asked.

“Under a hedge,” said Rodwell.

Everybody laughed.

“I suppose that means you found the bird in the sky,” said Devlin.

“Would that I had, Mister Devlin,” said Rodwell. “No sir – I found him with the hedgehog. They were crouched there side by side when I got them by putting out my hand to secure the toad. We were all there together, you see. It was a popular hedge just at that moment.”

There are many other funny moments. I was glad for those, otherwise the book would have been really dark.

The Wars is populated by likable characters which makes it a painful read. There are not many men or animals who survive in this book. It’s not too gruesome as wounds and pain are not dwelt on but it has many explicit moments which make it an equally beautiful, powerful and painful read.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Buried in Print

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

The review is also a contribution to The Canadian Book Challenge.


The Wars was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel All That I Am  by Australian writer Anna Funder . Discussion starts on Friday 31 May, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Mary Lawson: The Other Side of the Bridge (2006)

At the end of my introductory post to the Canadian Book Challenge I asked for recommendations and pburt mentioned how much she liked Mary Lawson’s books. That’s how I decided to read The Other Side of the Bridge.

We cannot experience everything in our life. Especially not the past, nor a way of life which is very different from our own. Luckily one of the many functions of literature is to help us experience other times and places. Reading this novel makes it possible to travel back in time, to a place and a way of life long gone; rural Ontario between 1930 to 196o, a harsh inhospitable place which drives strangers and young people away.

The novel tells two parallel but linked stories and moves back and forth in time. It starts in the 30s with the story of the brothers Arthur and Jake. Arthur is the reliable one. Stocky and solid. He wants to become a farmer just like his father. Jake who is much younger, is the good-looking one, the favourite of his mother. But Jake is also inherently mean. A manipulative bully with a sadistic streak which he manages to hide behind his good looks and alleged charm. Only Arthur seems to know about his brothers true nature. One day, on a bridge, fate strikes and sets in motion a tragedy which cannot be stopped anymore.

The second story line starts in the 50s and is told from the point of view of young Ian, the son of the local doctor. Because he is secretly in love with Laura, Arthur’s beautiful wife, he offers to help Arthur every Sunday on the farm.

The blurb states that the novel bears a resemblance to 19th century novels of provincial life. That’s not a bad comparison. But more than that it also reminded me of Greek myths in which you can see the doomed heroes move towards their destruction. The worst thing in the myth of Oedipus for example isn’t so much that he sleeps with his mother and kills his father – although that is certainly very bad – but that his father thought he could prevent this tragedy which had been predicted and through this very attempt at preventing it, he finally provokes it. While The Other Side of the Bride is no story of incest, it has a similar dynamic as Oedipus’ story. There will be a tragedy. We know it.  And no matter how much the people try to prevent it, it will happen anyway. But other than in greek myths, and that’s where Mary Lawson meets Ian McEwan, there is atonement too.

Everything that I said so far has more to do with the plot. The story tells a tragedy and how it happens but that is just one layer of the book and not even the one I liked best as I found it a bit too predictable. What I really liked about this book is the writing which is amazingly beautiful and contains many passages like this one:

It was September, the worst time of the year as far as Arthur was concerned – endless months of school ahead, cooped up in one stuffy schoolroom at a too-small desk, while outside the maple flamed red and gold and the air was clear and pure as spring water. Inside was the leaden boredom, outside was the sharp tang of wood smoke and the urgency of shortening days. You could smell the winter coming. You could see it in the transparency of the light and hear it in the harsh warning cries of the geese as they passed overhead. Most of all you could feel it. During the day the sun was still hot but as soon as it dipped down behind the trees the warmth dropped out of the air like a stone.

Somewhat later in the book there is this passage in which Ian and his friend Peter sit together

They sat on in silence, or almost silence; if you listened closely you could just hear a faint thrumming from thousands of wings. Beyond the dragonflies the sun was sinking slowly, casting its rays across the lake, and on the other side, everything, as far as the eye could see, was slowly dissolving into the haze.

Ian thought, If I love to be a hundred years old, I always remember this.

Apart from the central story of a tragedy, The Other Side of the Bridge is an excellent depiction of the Canadian home front during WWII. It shows the way Canada was affected by huge losses, how most of the young men didn’t return and many of those who did were maimed for life. The book would have been a worthy candidate for my readalong.

Through Ian’s story it is also a coming-of age tale and a look at the life of a country doctor in an isolated place like rural Ontario where the winters are so incredibly harsh that most foreigners and many natives flee the place.

I must admit I didn’t connect with the characters and their stories, I didn’t feel I could identify with any of them, but I’m glad I discovered Mary Lawson. Her writing is beautiful and the way the people and the place come to life is astonishing. They emerge from the pages and seem to be walking around before your very eyes. The way she writes about Canada is very nostalgic and at times I was wondering if the writing wasn’t to a large extent fuelled by homesickness as she seems to be living in England by now. I any case I want to read her first novel Crow Lake soon.

This review is my first contribution to the Canadian Book Challenge 6

The Canadian Book Challenge 6

I was hoping to find a Canadian Literature Challenge. These days I’m very interested in literature written in English outside of the UK and the US. The Canadian Book Challenge seemed just the thing I was looking for. I came across the challenge on Gavin’s blog Page 247.

The host is John Mutford from The Book Mine Set. His blog is dedicated to Canadian literature. If you are interested here’s the sign up post with all the details you need to know. In theory the idea is to read 13 books. It sounds like a lot but interpreting what John writes I would say it doesn’t seem as if you must reach that number. Aim for it, if you read less, it’s not the end of the world, if you read more, all the better.

I have a lot of Canadian literature on my book piles and have read quite a few authors in the past. Authors writing in English and in French. I asked and if you’d like to join, you can choose books written in English or French as long as the author or the topic is Canadian.

I know that I usually do not stick to my book lists but I still keep on making them. Possible choices for this challenge are

A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart. Urquhart isn’t an easy writer but she is a fascinating one who writes beautifully.

Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle. Atwood is another immensely fascinating author I have meant to return to. I loved Cat’s Eye and Surfacing and some of her short stories.

The Birth House by Amy McKay. I haven’t read this author yet but everyone who read this novel was impressed.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is a book I discovered not too long ago on Danielle’s blog (A Work in Progress). It sounded like another Canadian must-read.

I would like to read the one or the other novel by Nancy Huston and some other Canadian authors writing in French.  Since I recently discovered Louise Penny’s Canadian crime series, I’ll certainly read one of those as well.

Are you joining? Do you have any Canadian literature suggestions?