I’m fascinated with World War I, mostly because I can’t understand on a visceral level what would keep so many men in absolute squalor long past the time they knew their lives were being cast away. Nor can I comprehend the numbers – at Verdun, 1.25 million casualties in nine months; at the Somme, more British men killed and wounded in one day than the United States lost in Vietnam. It truly was a Lost Generation. That makes it hard to find hope in the stories of this war.
Yet Sebastien Japrisot has done just that in A Very Long Engagement. A group of French soldiers – among them a farmer, a city hustler, a young fisherman, and a carpenter – are tried for self-mutilation, found guilty, and sent to their deaths. Only the French Command doesn’t think French soldiers will carry out the punishment, so the pathetic group is thrown into No Man’s Land to die at the hands of the Germans. No one really knows what happens next – attacks, counterattacks, reinforcements trekking through the area make the final outcome uncertain, though it is a foregone conclusion that the convicted soldiers are dead.
Only one person does not believe in foregone conclusions – Mathilde, the fiancee of the young fisherman Manech, wants incontrovertible proof that her lover is dead. Rich, spoiled, and confined to a wheelchair, she has the time and resources to seek information, to dispatch a private investigator, and to visit in person every man who may have passed through the trench called, for some reason, Bingo Crepuscule. Hints and rumors, vague clues, strands of possibilities come together to give Mathilde hope, despite kindly efforts to discourage her optimism. But Mathilde is up against a literal deadline: the men involved in the sentencing and punishment of the soldiers are being killed one by one. It seems that someone else has a desire to learn the truth of Bingo Crepuscule, the need for revenge and the ability to carry it out.
Any more than that would give away the outcome of the story. But Japrisot has pulled off an incredible feat with this book, combining an intense love story with a compelling mystery, a noir detective story with a fairy tale, and a war story that gives a measure of hope. Japrisot creates a marvelous amateur detective in Mathilde, but the secondary characters offer real pleasures as well – a charming scrounger, a stoic war widow, Mathilde’s faithful servants. He also tells the story in wonderfully descriptive language, but doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of the trenches.
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