By Sebastian Faulks.
Stephen Wraysford has been sent to Amiens by his employer to study French industry. But instead, he falls in love with his host’s wife, Isabelle, and they have an affair which is revealed after her husband finds that she has been aiding and abetting striking workers. They move away and live together for a time before Isabelle finds herself pregnant and, unable to tell Stephen, she returns to her husband.
A few years later, it’s World War I and Stephen is a lieutenant fighting in the trenches and mostly working with the sappers. He’s involved in some action and manages to survive, but does get wounded and is left for dead. Eventually he returns to Amiens where he meets Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne, and manages to secure an interview with Isabelle. Since they parted, she has had an affair with a German officer, Max, while the Germans occupied Amiens, but she was also wounded during a bombardment and has been scarred. She still doesn’t tell Stephen about their child and later moves to Germany after Max is badly wounded.
Stephen continues to survive the war and he begins to see Jeanne on a regular basis and starts having a relationship with her. But as the war comes to a close, he find himself down in one of the mines which the sappers have been digging when the Germans set off charges trapping him underground with the wounded Jack Firebrace. Somehow, he manages to escape, partly through his own efforts and partly through the efforts of the Germans who realise that someone must have survived the blasts they set off. Jack dies of his wounds and Stephen emerges from beneath the earth to find that the war is over.
While all this is happening, Stephen’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, is trying to learn something about her grand-father. She manages to get hold of his diaries, which he wrote in a kind of code, and track down some of his former comrades-in-arms. She has her own problems at the same time such as her relationship with a married man who is never going to leave his wife.
Elizabeth eventually finds that she’s pregnant, learns something of Stephen from his diaries, and gets the rest of the story from her mother, Françoise, who was not Stephen and Jeanne’s child (they married in 1919), but Stephen and Isabelle’s. Isabelle died during the Spanish Flu epidemic and Max, who was in no state to take care of the child, sent her back to France. Elizabeth gives birth to a boy and names him John in order to keep a promise that Stephen made to the dying Jack Firebrace whose own son, John, died of diphtheria while his father was serving in France.
Overall, a good read, although I thought that the final part of the WWI story dragged a little and strained plausibility as Stephen managed to save himself below ground quite literally single-handed because he was unable to use one arm. I also note that Faulks seems to have a thing about reticent pregnant women because the same inability of la femme enceinte to inform anyone of her condition also crops up in Human Traces.
Stephen is a displaced person. He comes from a troubled background, but was taken under the wing of a wealthy patron and managed to make something of himself. His elevation to the officer corps was also at the prompting of a patron. There isn’t much to like about him because he’s not especially personable, but he’s not dislikeable either. He just is. He seems to be the sort of person who is still an outsider even when he’s on the inside, although that is a state partly of his own making. Eventually, he marries Jeanne.
Isabelle is the Edwardian wife of the much older Azaire, who abuses her. She treats Stephen with proper hauteur at first, but he discovers that she is also helping the impoverished workers who work for her husband. From what I can tell, she seems to be modelled on any number of oversensitive female characters from Victorian or Edwardian literature, but she actually has sex. Her reluctance to tell Stephen about her pregnancy is derived from what little he has said about his own childhood. She herself seems to transfer her affections rather easily as she presumably looks for some security in life.
The sections of the story about Elizabeth are less engaging than those about Stephen. She’s in her late thirties, single, and a mistress to a man who (cliché alert!) is never going to leave his wife. I like the idea of the two generations working to meet each other in a hypothetical middle, but the deciphering of the diaries is passed to someone else, and it’s from them that she gets most of her information. She could also have asked her mother about her grandfather, but that doesn’t occur to her until the end of the book.
Along with Stephen there are his comrades-in-arms who have been affected by the war one way or another, and who are likely to be casualties from the next bombardment or suicidal assault. Weir is a superstitious alcoholic; Gray is the patron who has to keep prodding Stephen; the sappers are the supporting cast of British Tommys. I suppose I shouldn’t forget to mention the lice, but I don’t know who’d play them in the film.