A Very Long Engagement | Critical Review by Rachel Billington

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of A Very Long Engagement.
This section contains 778 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Rachel Billington

SOURCE: "No Man's Land," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, p. 24.

Daughter of the seventh earl of Longford, Lady Rachel Mary Billington is an English novelist, nonfiction writer, author of children's literature, dramatist, and critic. In the following favorable review of A Very Long Engagement, she contends that the story is a morality tale about war.

World War I has always inspired writers, as if art (in particular poetry) could do something to overcome the dominance of death. The war's notorious trenches introduced a new form of horror that killed, maddened and deformed. Afterward, Europe was filled with widows, mothers without sons, sorrowing sweethearts. It is not surprising, then, that the French writer Sébastian Japrisot, whose prose uses the poetry of the visual, has taken one wartime tragedy and turned it into a tale about morality, a novel in which a few strands of goodness and heroism gleam among so much suffering and degradation.

The protagonist of A Very Long Engagement is Mathilde, a young woman whose fiancé, known as Cornflower because of his blue eyes, is reported killed in action in 1917. The story tells of her efforts to discover how he died.

This might seem simple enough—almost a cliché, you would think. But before introducing Mathilde, Mr. Japrisot gives us a terrible curtain raiser: in a series of horrifying scenes, five French soldiers, including Cornflower, are taken, hands bound, and thrown into no man's land at a place called Bingo Crépuscule, where the French and German lines are so close that "muffled noises, snatches of harmonica music" can be heard from the other side. All five men have been convicted of self-mutilation to avoid further service in the war; their macabre and cruel punishment seems to be a way of breaking a stalemate that has fallen on this part of the battlefield.

According to the official records, all five soldiers simply die in the line of duty. But the unofficial stories of just how they die have a nightmarish quality. It is January, and one, smiling insanely, builds a snowman; another brings down an airplane with a grenade he has found. Five bodies are buried by soldiers from Newfoundland who replace the demoralized French forces. But are these the bodies of the five men who were condemned to death? Is it possible that at least one of them has survived?

Not for nothing have all seven of Mr. Japrisot's previous novels been made into films. In A Very Long Engagement, the unfolding detective story runs side by side with evocative views of Mathilde and the lives that surround her. Although the reader is ahead of her at the beginning, Mathilde soon catches up. From now on, we must struggle, as she does, to sort out the pieces of the puzzle. Why did one of the five men, a peasant farmer from the Dordogne, fill most of what he knew would be his last, brief letter to his beloved wife with instructions about the manure for his fields? And what was the relationship between two of the condemned, a relationship that involved a woman in Paris and certainly had an effect on who, if anyone, might have eluded the crossfire?

As the novel progresses, Mathilde's determined probing fills in the background behind the horrors of Bingo Crépuscule. In the process, what at first seemed straightforward becomes extremely complicated. To explain further would spoil the reader's enjoyment of the book.

The author's style, in an exceedingly good translation by Linda Coverdale, is also deceptive, apparently without flourishes but rich in imagery and daringly abbreviated rhythms. If the novel is not perfect, its flaws are created consciously, one feels, for dramatic purpose. Consider, for example, Mathilde's own strange circumstances: at the age of 3, she climbed to the top of a stepladder and tried to fly; although her injuries seemed relatively minor, she has been unable to walk ever since. There are other occasions when Mr. Japrisot's puppeteer's hand moves his characters or plot in ways that fail to convince.

But war is Mr. Japrisot's main theme, its legacy his main strength; and, as the novel moves onward, he makes it all seem outlandishly real. On finishing this book, I was irresistibly drawn to the work of that great British poet Wilfred Owen, whose parents heard of his death as the Armistice bells rang out in 1918. His poem "The Send-Off," written five months earlier, describes soldiers departing for the front. Its final lines echo the revelations that emerge from Mr. Japrisot's fine novel:

      Shall they return to beatings of great bells
          In wild train-loads?
      A few, a few, too few for drums
          and yells,
      May creep back, silent, to still
          village wells
      Up half-known roads.

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This section contains 778 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Rachel Billington