Post number twenty-eight is for Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, which has taken a Very Long Time for me to read. :)) I actually was interested in this book because I’d seen the film – which is very good – a long LONG time ago (back when I was still working at B&N) and decided I wanted to read the book as well. The book, like the film, is very very good; it wasn’t lack of interest that kept me from finishing this book, but rather lack of time. Also, the chapters are laid out differently in this book, which each one a new happening, if you will, in the narrator’s life, and I didn’t want to stop in the middle of a chapter, so would oftentimes have to not read the book if I was only going to be able to grab a few minutes here or there. But now that all my required reading is done – at least for the next month :D – I was finally able to pick it back up and finish it.
Spoilers follow, although I’ll try not to get too in depth.
A Very Long Engagement is set during and immediately following World War I. The narrator – Mathilde – has just been informed that her fiance, Manech, has been killed in the line of duty in the Somme. However, once she goes about researching this, she discovers that all is not exactly as it seems. For Manech was actually tried for self-mutilation – he shot himself in the hand to try to get out of the war – and was found guilty. For punishment, Manech – along with four others – are sent to the front lines at Bingo Crépuscule, an area of trenches. The army apparently wanted to make an example of these five men, so had the general of the trench toss them unarmed and bound up into no man’s land, the area between the German and French trenches. What follows is a search for the truth, for Mathilde doesn’t believe that Manech is dead, even when faced with seemingly little hope. The book is written in contrasting styles, for Mathilde starts to write down everything everyone ever tells her about Bingo Crépuscule and the five French soldiers left for dead. Along the way she meets many others who were also at Bingo Crépuscule, from army members to doctors to an Austrian woman whose brother was killed at Bingo Crépuscule. While the talk of the war is eye-opening and horrifying, Mathilde’s unerring devotion to discovering the truth reads like a love story. You get to see through flashbacks how her and Manech became friends and later fell in love. You are allowed glimpses of what the five soldiers had to go through in no man’s land. And above all you get to see what hope really looks like.
The book is translated from French, but you’d never know it. It reads really easily and is really beautiful in its storytelling. Mathilde is a feisty main character (she’s wheelchair-bound after a childhood incident, so doesn’t walk; I think this makes her all the more stubborn and unwilling to accept untruths), and she had a great support system in her family, especially in Sylvain. Her relationship with Manech, and her inability to let him go until she knows the absolute truth, really grabs you by the heart and tugs. But be forewarned that there’s a lot of “war talk” so it’s not always a pretty story. There were some moments where you could literally feel Mathilde’s frustration, and were really pulling for her to figure things out. Even having seen the film – admittedly several years ago – I was griped by the story and just wanted to know how she was going to figure it all out.
The storytelling can be a bit strange, admittedly, because much of it is done via letters or telegraphs. She also jumps time periods a lot, especially toward the end, but it still fits together in an easy-to-read way. All in all, I recommend this book and am glad I finally got the time to read it.