Nov 11, 2009

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

Set (mostly) in a Scottish village during WWI, Remembrance is the story of four teenagers: Charlotte and Francis are the children of the village’s wealthiest and most respectable family. Margaret and John Malcolm, while not quite as far up the social ladder, belong to a reasonably well-off merchant family. While under normal circumstances they might not have gotten to know one another well, the change of mores and the breakdown of class distinctions brought about by the Great War allow them to get to know one another and even become more than friends. However, the war also means they eventually have to go their separate ways.

Even though Francis is the eldest, John Malcolm is the first to enlist. He does so as soon as he comes of age in 1916, eager to fight for his country. Francis, on the other hand, opposes the war and refuses to join—until, that is, the social pressure becomes too much to bear. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte, who would normally be expected to join her mother in her social visits and charity teas, begins to train as a nurse. And Margaret, no longer content to obey her father in the shop, eventually finds work at a munition factory in Edinburgh.

What I liked the most about Remembrance was the fact that it focused so much on the social changes that were precipitated by the war, namely in terms of class and gender roles. Even before the War, Charlotte and Margaret sympathized with the women’s movement. But after experiencing the unusual freedom that the conflict brings, they both know they won't go back to the lives they were expected to live: lives of innocent social engagements, marriage, and deference to the men in their lives.

Another thing I loved was the characterization. The characters were all of them real and complex. Not only the two pairs of siblings, but also the rest of their families, their whole village, and the people they eventually meet in Belgium and France. Through these characters, readers are exposed to a wide range of emotional experiences; to different reactions to the war and its consequences, all of which are acknowledged as valid. There was a conversation between Francis and Maggie that I really loved: he tells her that even though the war goes against everything he stands for, he gets both the despair and the exhilaration, both what causes men to lose their minds and what makes them eager to enlist and fight. I also loved that Maggie sends him a book of poetry by Siegfried Sassoon. Knowing that he's not alone helps Francis immensely.

But as much as it acknowledges different ways of experiencing the war, Remembrance is still a perfect illustration of how dreadful war in general is, and what a tragedy WW1 in particular was. We see consequences of every kind: lives lost, survivors psychologically broken, young people seeing too much too soon. There is hope amidst the tragedy, and perhaps a few more miracles than what would be statically likely, but that isn't to say this is a feel-good story – far from it. It's heart-wrenching, and parts of it made me cry my eyes out.

I vaguely remember learning about WWI in history class and hearing the number of deaths. I also remember being told, at home, that one of my great-grandfathers had fought in it. But it wasn't until I first read the WWI poets in English class that it truly hit home: the senseless carnage, the raw despair, the muddy hell that was the front, the full horror of the gas attacks. It was only then that I understood the fear, the sorrow, the regret that this war happened at all, that we did and keep doing such things to one another. Which is why I love writing, be it novels, poetry, short stories, scripts, you name it: they make reality more real.

I read this book for Kailana's unofficial Remembrance Day challenge: she's inviting people to read a book on one of the World Wars during the month of November, and she's also collecting and posting links to their reviews. I've read quite a few books on WWII, but not so many on WWI. Do you have a favourite you'd recommend?

Other Opinions:
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book
Jenny's Books

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  1. I remember reading this as a teenager, and it is certainly a book that stays with you. Have you read any Linda Newberry YA novels - I think some of those are set in the first world war. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with Birdsong by Sebastien Faulks. It's also worth reading Goodbye to all that by Robert Graves which is an autobiography of an officer partly on the western front - ditto Siegfried Sasson's Memoirs.

  2. Oh...I've never heard of this book, but it sounds just wonderful! I went through a Historical Novel phase, but I didn't read about from the WWI or WWII era. I will definitely put this on my list!! Great Review!

  3. Probably one of the most amazing books I've read this year, in which half the story takes place in WWI, is Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann. It is truly one that you will never forget. WWI never meant a whole lot to me beyond what I learned in high school history, until recently, when my husband and I got our hands on his grandfather's journal. It was written in Polish, so we are slowly translating it, and was written during his time fighting in WWI. The whole era has become incredibly personal now.

  4. The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker? I've read the first two and have The Ghost Road waiting for me. Very good.

  5. I agree with you about the power of the WWI poets, such as Wilfrid Owen. ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?")

    I read a wonderful WWI book a few years ago called A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell, a Canadian author. It actually occurs at the close of the war. The father of a Canadian soldier journeys to France to see the place where his son lost his life. He finds out that his son had a fiance and his search becomes a search for her too. There are references to the influenza epidemic too - the homefront tragedy of that time. Not a very long book, but powerful.

  6. This does sound fascinating.

    I've been thinking about WW1 a lot - partly because I just read "Something in the Air" by Jan Mark.

    Its set a couple of years after the end of WW1, and while it is quite a light story, it made me understand an aspect of WW1 that up to now was just an abstraction - the tremendous impact that the death of all those young men had on everyone's lives. Throughout the story we constantly meet women who have lost fathers, sons, brothers, fiancées and husbands. Its like a shadow over the whole story.

    Almost an entire generation of young men. So difficult to understand the impact of that.

  7. England suffered the loss of so many young men in this war; the figures are staggering. Sassoon and Owen are two of my favorite poets. WWII failed to produce anything nearly as good. Thanks for this recommendation--I'll look for this one and for the one Masha recommends. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days is about a young veteran who survived and managed to salvage his life.

  8. I've never heard of this book but it sounds really interesting! Thanks for the review!

  9. I second the recommendation for Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy. Sassoon is a minor character in it. Her recent book Still Life, also set during WWI, is very good, too.

  10. I have to admit that when I read books on war, they tend to be about WWII; this sounds like an interesting look at WWI. Thanks for the review!

  11. I believe I go along with Jenclair, that WWI produced better poetry than WWII.

    I have read quite a bit on WWI, but it's nonfiction, and it sounds as if you're looking for fiction.

  12. I haven't heard of this one before, and it sounds like I would really like it. Also, I haven't read too many books set during world war 1 (if any) so this would definitely be a good choice in that respect. Thanks, Nymeth! :)

  13. This sounds fascinating. I'm adding it to my to-read list.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  14. Lately I find myself interested in that period from the turn of the century to the 1930s, and I've been looking for more novels around WWI. I have the Regeneration Trilogy on my TBR list already, but I plan to add this one as well. Wonderful review, as always!

  15. The book sounds great and it's the perfect review for today since it's Veteran's Day here in the US.

  16. I don't recall having heard of this book before but I have added it to my TBR list. It sounds very good.

    Thanks for the review.

  17. I'll be adding this to my list of books about WW1 to read. Apart from the one I read for Kailana's challenge I also think Ben Elton's First Casualty is an excellent read on WW1. Birdsong is an amazing book too. One I haven't read but have on my tbr pile is The Patriot's Progress by Henry Williamson.

  18. I'd love to read more books on WWI so I'll definitely look out for this, and in addition the premise sounds good to me. Thanks for the review, Nymeth! :)

  19. What a fitting post, Nymeth. I agree with you- I also didn't really feel the impact of WWI until the poetry, and then even more so after reading All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most powerful books I've ever read. I think that book more than any other made it clear to me that there was no "bad guy" in that war. I will add Remembrance to my wishlist now, too.

  20. This sounds like an interesting one for someone like myself that enjoys a novel with a historical context and othe than All Quiet on the Western Front I don't think I've read anything set in this time period before.

  21. Now that you mention it there seems to be a glutton of books based around WWII but not many that cover WWI. This sounds like one that I would read. I just remembered that I read "Johnny Got His Gun" for my English Lit class. That one was harrowing and was set during WWI. My Great-Grandfather served in WWI. He came home with tuberculosis and died from it.

  22. Thanks for joining in, Ana! People mentioned interest but then I haven't really heard from anyone, so glad to see a participant! And, now I want to read this... :)

  23. There was a book I read when I was younger about a ghost who lived through WWI. It talked quite a bit about the war and how violent it was. The title of the book was The Ghost Wore Grey.

  24. This sounds lovely! I love reading books that give you a really vivid idea of how people lived in a certain time and place. I never used to be interested in the World Wars, but one day we were going through an old photo album from my dad's side of the family, and Dad took out a picture of his mother to show us. And on the back we found a list of places and dates - when my grandfather was flying missions in World War II, he wrote each place name and date on the back of my grandmother's picture, to keep track of each one until he could come back home to Grammy. So I don't know, after that it all seemed much more real.

  25. This looks like a great book. Thank you for the recommendation!

  26. Looks like a good book. The only WWI novel I can think of (other than poets) off the top of my head is one of the books in the "Anne in Green Gables" of Anne's sons died in WWI and this son had also written poetry about the war. That book made me cry years ago when I read it!

  27. Verity: Thank you for all the recommendations! I haven't read Linda Newberry, and Birdsong has been on my mental tbr list for ages.

    Stephanie: Another thing I loved was that part of it was epistolary. I have a soft spot for epistolary novels.

    Sandy: Oh wow...I can't even begin to imagine what reading that journal must have felt like :(

    Clover: Thank you - to my list it goes!

    Christy: That poem makes me teary-eyed every time - as does "Dulce et Decorum". LOVE Owen. A Century of November sounds wonderful!

    Masha: This book touches on that too - the characters live in a small village, and nearly everyone loses a loved one. It is indeed difficult to even imagine.

    Jenclair: I agree - WWI poetry is just something else.

    S. Krishna: It is, but also very sad. Which goes without saying, I know.

    C.B. James: Sassoon is a character? Now I want it more than ever.

    Trisha: Same here, and I'm not sure why as WWI really interests me too!

    Jill: I'm always up for some non-fiction as well, actually!

    Heather: I hope you enjoy it!

    Anna: It'd be perfect for War Through the Generations. Are you hosting again next year, btw?

    Priscilla: Isn't it a fascinating period? I need to read the Regeneration Trilogy as well.

    Kathy: Kailana told me! Thus this review :P

    Marg: You're welcome!

    J.T. Oldfield: Hooray for blogging friends who let me know about these things.

    Cath, thank you for all the recommendations!

    Melody: It's a great one to start with, I think :)

    Aarti: I can't believe I still haven't read All Quiet on the Western Front. There's a part of that book that illustrates that also - that both sides were made of frightened young soldiers, unsure of what they were fitting for.

    Kathleen: As I was telling Aarti, I really need to read that myself!

    Staci: I'm sure they exist, but someone I haven't discovered most yet. I'm so sorry about your great-grandfather :(

    Kailana: Thank *you* for the encouragement!

    heidenkind: I like the sound of that book!

  28. Jenny: You have the most amazing family stories! I don't know all that much about the grand-grandfather who fought in the war. My mother never got to know him, and his son, my grandfather, has passed away too :(

    Zee: You're welcome!

    Valerie: I've only read the first 3 Anne books so far, but I look forward to Rila, even though it sounds incredibly sad :(

  29. I actually don't know very much about WWI. Most books and movies I read about war are the American Civil War and WWII. Great post for Remembrance Day!

  30. Another book that YOU are responsible for bringing to my attention! It sounds like a wonderful read, Ana, and I hope I can get my hands on it soon. After having just read All Quiet, I'm really in the mood to read even more about that time, as horrendously tragic as it was.

  31. Ooh, this sounds wonderful. I'll definitely have to add it to the TBR list.

    As far as recommendations go for books about WWI, I'd highly recommend Arthur Slade's Megiddo's Shadow and L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside,

  32. This sounds like a wonderful book that addresses the different angles of wwI. I added it to my TBR.


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