Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Not so Hidden Costs of War

I'm smack dab in the middle of three novels that are just about as disparate as any three books could be. And yet....they share a common theme which jumped out at me sometime in the middle of the night when those kinds of connections usually do. Each author features characters whose lives have been irrevocably changed by war.

These are not the obvious suspects though, not soldiers in battle, nurses on the front lines, but the everyday, innocent denizens of whichever country happens to be involved at the time. These are the ones who may be completely apolitical, too old or too young to even be aware of the creeping evil about to overtake them. These are the invisible victims, the so-called "collateral damage" of roadside bombings, ethnic or tribal warfare, and partisan divisions. They will break your heart.

Don was reading Alan Furst's novel The Spies of Warsaw, which had been recommended by a lovely woman with whom we'd talked books one evening over wine in Siena. In fact, she had suggested we see the BBC film but Don decided to read the book first. He kept remarking on how realistic it was in terms of the diplomatic life of embassies overseas, before his time, but something he's familiar with.

 I love good espionage - think, John Le Carre - so decided I'd read it too and am so glad that I did. You can't possibly appreciate the choppy film without the back story that the novel provides. A fascinating time in history, we're talking 1937-39, when the rumblings of Hitler's intentions are beginning to waft over to the people in power but haven't yet trickled down to the man on the street.

Sure, we take history in high school and even college but somehow I get so much more from a novel. Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Belgium, all these countries whose boundaries connect and whose histories are tied up together, are still reeling from the first world war. Still, rumors abound at the French embassy in Warsaw where Colonel Mercier, a wounded veteran of WW I and no fan of another conflict, tries to convince his higher ups in Paris that something is afoot.

Intelligence, counter-intelligence, spies and double spies with just enough very well written sex scenes and an epic love story are all combined in this very well done look at average people caught up in extreme circumstances.

I found a similar situation in Christopher Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins, his latest entry in the historical fiction genre that began with Skeletons at the Feast and moved on to Syria with The Sandcastle Girls. World War II is now in full engagement, the Nazis are making their move into Italy and the Rosati family's Villa Chimera has been confiscated by German soldiers. Events at the villa will affect the family, Francesca, married to the Rosati's pride and joy, Marco, their children, parents, and the youngest daughter, Cristina, for a decade after the end of the war.
In 1955, in Florence, a horrific murder in a shabby apartment not far from the Arno will bring the Rosati women in contact with police investigator Seraphina Bettini, a woman whose own war past has left her deeply scarred psychically and physically. As I begin to surmise the connection between Seraphina and the Rosatis, I can scarcely put this book down even though the mail lady has just delivered two new novels from Library Journal that need my immediate attention.
The first one is simply and powerfully titled Dust. The Kenyan author, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, had me at page one with a compelling and stirring description of a young man in the throes of death. I've researched Kenya's long history of war, first for independence from Britain and then from the corruption and human rights violations of its own leaders. I know that this won't be an easy read but I appreciate that the thread that runs through these three novels is one that we must never grow immune to.


TooManyBooks said...

I'm about 2/3 thru A Light in the Ruins and loving it! Hope all is well. Say hi to Don! Miss you!

Sallyb said...

Miss you too. Ready for that retirement party.