BLURB (from AMAZON)
Robert Ross, a sensitive nineteen-year-old Canadian officer, went to war – the War to End All Wars. He found himself in the nightmare world of trench warfare; of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses. In this world gone mad, Robert Ross performed a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death.
About the Author
Timothy Findley was born in Toronto in 1930. His first career was in the theatre; he was a charter company member of Ontario’s Stratford Shakespearean Festival in 1953, and toured several European capitals.$$$In 1963, Findley turned to writing full-time and in 1977 his third novel, The Wars, won a Governor General’s Award. It is now considered a Canadian classic. Following his bestsellers such as Famous Last Words, he won an Edgar Award for The Telling of Lies, while his collection of short stories, Stones, won Ontario’s Trillium Award.$$$Findley’s first work of non-fiction, Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Workbook, made him the first two-time winner of a Canadian Authors Association Award; he had earlier won its fiction counterpart for his novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage. He has also written plays, and his third, The Stillborn Lover(1993), won the CAA Drama Award, as well as winning an Arthur Ellis Award and Chalmers Award. His later novels include Headhunter (1993) and The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995). His most recent play, Elizabeth Rex, was produced at the 2000 Stratford Festival in Canada.$$$Along with the likes of Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley has become one of Canada’s most acclaimed and best-selling authors. In 2000, Faber published Pilgrim and reissued The Warsand Famous Last Words. His last novel, Spadework, was published in 2002, the year in which Timothy Findley died.
A few of our book clubbers didn’t get a chance to read The Wars. We have, as a group, become so reliant on digital copies of books that we are occasionally left stunned into bemused inactivity followed by last minute attempts at purchasing when a book is only available in paper copy!
Those of us who did get ahold of the novel were divided into two camps – those of us that had enjoyed Pilgrim (not yet written up) by the same author were looking forward to it; those that hadn’t enjoyed the former approached it as one would a long slow march through nettles. It’s not that Pilgrim wasn’t well written; it was just so very long and so very Jung. However, this book was very different. For one thing, it was written many years earlier and while the writing style hadn’t changed drastically; Findley appears to have been much more economical in terms of descriptions and words. Every sentence in this book carried weight and had impact. Every word mattered. So subtle the writing and so sparse the descriptions that it took this reader as while to realise that it was set in Canada…what a PLONKER! Given that this is one of the centenary years of the war, it was fascinating to read about a lesser known side of the war.
However, with regards to the characters, while Pilgrim was a detailed analyses of a characters journey and interactions with other; this much more sparse story held far less developed characters. Robert – the primary protagonist – was naive to the core and didn’t seem to change much despite all that he had seen and done. He was hugely emphatic and obviously using animals as a substitute for his deceased sister. One of us suggested that his impulsive actions towards the end of the book was in fitting with his development as an animal activist…which I personally can reluctantly concede to. The characters that surrounded him were more archetypes than people necessarily. Or so some of us thought; others disagrees feeling that they – and particularly Robert’s family – were beautifully drawn and that it was down to the reader to interact with the words and allow their imaginations to complete the gaps.
It was difficult to decide exactly what story was being told in The Wars. On one hand, it was a personal journey of a man during a war, on the other it was the tale of the impact of war on one family…or a picture of Canada’s war…or the use of animals in the Great War. For a tiny novel; this book contained so much, it was impossible to pin down one primary theme. It’s fair to say that this was by no means a typical depiction of the Great War or of a soldier during it – whether from Canada or not. The actions with the barn ensured that Robert would never have been able to reintegrate with society after the conflict had ended. Personally, I found that to be a huge shame – as I have enjoyed Findley’s writing and I would have very much liked to have read his view of the ‘typical’ soldiers experience.
Structurally, this book felt a little like an academic exercise. There are 4 trials by elements – water, air, fire, earth. Animals are ever constant and representative of all that is good in the world. His pistol represents authority. There are wars that are both internal and external; personal and profession; resolved and left hanging. There are three time lines told in three different persons – 1st, 2nd and 3rd which works surprisingly well. Each experience has a polar opposite. There are moments of grace and beauty and moments of horror and misery.
It fit for some of us that this was studied at GCSE/O Level age groups in school for a time – it must have been a huge eye opener. I – and this was just me I think – felt a bit more jaded. By the time that Robert and 3 others were sat in a crater, near shell shocked and protecting nonsensical items, I was started to chaff. For a book so well constructed; so contained; so crafted…it all began to fall in onto itself. Again, I think that this was just me. Or perhaps that was the point. All war, all the death, all the misery that come with them, in the end life goes on and renders the past somewhat…less. Not pointless, just…less.
We also ended up discussing Sebastian Barry – A Long Long Way; Sebastian Faulks Birdsong and the absolutely fantastic season 4 of Blackadder.