I’m ashamed to write about this book about four months (months!) after I’ve finished it, and probably closer to a year since I started it. Still, this book won the Goncourt prize, for heaven’s sake!
Why did it took me so long? I’m totally ready to admit that the fault lies with me. I should have been moved to tears and revolted and thrilled, but I just wasn’t that into it.
The story starts at the end of the war in 1918, when so many stories would end. Millions of men have died, but the soldiers in the battalion of Commandant Aulnay-Pradelle have managed to survive so far. Their leader, eager to get glory (and a promotion!) before it’s too late, launches a last-minute attack. It’s a miracle that the two heroes survive, and it’s the start of a friendship as deep as unlikely between those two: Edouard Péricourt, the son of a wealthy bourgeois, who has received a debilitating face wound on the battleground, and Albert Maillard, the somewhat naive young man with no wealth or education, who has saved him.
At the end of the war, France is in mourning of its dead soldiers, but the survivors are not really welcome. The traumatized and the wounded are far too disturbing to look at, and don’t really match with the glorious image that the state wants to promote. Others, like Aulnay-Pradelle, are eager to reap the benefits of the post-war opportunities, even the most grim ones, like the funeral monuments to be built all over the country, and the burial of deceased.
The historical research and the literary influence of the period are obvious strong points of the book. Pierre Lemaitre wants to imitate books of the beginning of the century, Céline most notably, yet the novel is still highly readable and keeps a brisk pace as Lemaitre’s other crime novels. The opening scenes are really great: you are put directly in the mud of the battle ground next to the foot soldiers; you can hear the shells fly by and explode; you fear for your life.
The disappointment came to me later, as I got stuck in the dreaded “sagging middle”. Characters started to feel a bit one-dimensional, especially the good guy Albert and the bad guy Aulnay-Pradelle, they didn’t expand or gain in depth. The ending fell flat with one coincidence too many to my taste.
Still, I’d recommend the book for those who want to see the dark underbelly, both cynical and amoral, of the roaring twenties in France.