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Category Archive for 'Epic Novel'

In one of his most expansive novels since Confederates, Australian author Thomas Keneally recreates the cataclysm of World War I, providing an epic vision of warfare with all its horrors, while focusing on the specific contributions of Australia, and its nurses in particular, to Britain’s war effort. Creating two sisters, young nurses from the rural Macleay Valley in New South Wales, who volunteer to serve in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Keneally creates the points of view through which he then describes the war, its atrocities, and the heroic actions of its Australian participants. The result is a grand saga in which these two nurses, their colleagues, their patients, and their soldier friends share their lives and their feelings as they deal with the accidents of fate which will change them all. Engaging and often moving, the novel explores life at the front a hundred years ago, with main characters whose psychological acuity gives them some depth. Though the novel does get a bit preachy in places and makes occasional moral pronouncements, Keneally has written an ambitious novel which pulls no punches: “There are only two choices, you know. Either die or live well. We live on behalf of thousands who don’t. Millions. So let’s not mope about it, eh?”

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In this old-fashioned, “once-upon-a-time-in-the-old-country” saga set in northern Italy, author Vittorio Massimo Manfredi introduces the Bruni family of farmers. Living in the rural hills outside of Bologna, Callisto and Clerice, parents of seven sons and two daughters, have worked the same land as generations of their ancestors. When World War I begins, the war changes the very heart of the nation, not just because of the hundreds of thousands of young men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, but because of the totality of the horrors for every person in the country. The years of Fascism form the second part of the novel’s structure, with each of the brothers and their friends responding differently to the rise of Mussolini and his dictatorship. The third part of the novel features the next generation of Bruni sons as they deal with the many factions within Italy during World War II. Various Resistance groups fight against the Fascist Republican Army, or its extreme wing, the paramilitary Black Brigades, but the Resistenza itself is fragmented. This novel has something for everyone, and that is both its joy and its limitation. The fact that there is not a moment of boredom in the entire novel attests to the author’s prodigious narrative abilities, but the thirty-year focus results in a novel that is diffuse and sometimes unfocused, and the conclusion itself peters out.

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Numerous authors, in recent years, have written about the settlement of Australia and the taking of aboriginal lands by white settlers, something the Australian government has recently tried to rectify through legislation and for which they have apologized. Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is unique, however. The son of an aborigine (Noongar) father and white mother, Scott has written this novel from the Noongar point of view, bringing it to life through the stories surrounding Bobby Wabalanginy and his family, who are named for members of the author’s own family. From his earliest days, Bobby has been connected to whales, and he remembers Menak, the King of the Noongars (and his father), telling him about sliding inside a whale’s blowhole, warming himself beside its heart, and joining his voice to the whale’s roar, a story Bobby vividly imagines reliving himself. At one point, he even describes his mother acquiring him “when [a still live] whale came up on the beach.” As more and more people come to King George Town, including British, Yankee whalers and the French, however, these “horizon people” begin to claim more property, and each time they do, they must take it from the Noongars. The novel is breathtaking and important, and few readers will finish it without feeling exhausted by its intensity. Superb!

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Opening with a brief preface, purportedly written in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and in Barcelona between 1973 and 1974, the novel’s author describes himself as a “copyist,” asserting that he is trying to make sense of daily notes found in a soldier’s old green canvas rucksack containing “dog-eared exercise books, leaflets, bits of cardboard, scraps of paper covered with an untidy scrawl.” Jakob Bergant-Berk, the soldier who penned these notes during Slovenia’s World War II battles against the Germans and Italians has also included “several selected sayings, quotations, maxims, [which he] entered in the notes, sometimes for no apparent reason, and sometimes as a integral part of them.” The novel itself evolves from this introduction, and battle scenes from 1943 alternate with scenes which take place in Barcelona in 1973, sometimes shifting time and place without transitions. It becomes clear that the soldier and the man in Barcelona are the same person, and it is in Barcelona, on vacation many years later, that this man, Berk, meets a former German soldier, Joseph Bitter. In a series of local bars and tourist destinations, they discuss the war, its objectives, and its Machiavellian strategies, a technique which allows the author to expand on some of the many themes to which Berk, the soldier, has referred, however briefly, in his notes. Images of war as a dance of death – a macabre minuet – accompanied by the “twenty-five shot guitar,” mentioned in the opening quotation, are matched with the ironic rat-a-tat-tat of Barcelona flamenco dancers, accompanied by the throbbing of Spanish guitars in the background as the two men talk.

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It is no overstatement to compare Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s epic novel about the people in the Lodz ghetto during World War II to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, published almost one hundred fifty years earlier. The real life dramas which the book illustrates, the memorable characters, the carefully developed themes which Sem-Sandburg treats in new ways, and the magnitude of the horrors easily make this book the equal of Tolstoy’s epic. The nature of the subject matter, of course, precludes any hint of romanticism here, but Sem-Sandburg is so good at varying scenes involving a series of fully human, repeating characters, that I cannot imagine any reader not becoming fully engaged with them, even though their stories have been created from piles of archival records, lists, and photographs and obviously have no happy endings. Beautifully written to memorialize the people of the ghetto, rather than the horrors of the Holocaust itself, this book is an awe-inspiring literary achievement.

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