I don’t know about this trend to tell a story within a story. Sometimes it adds a cool extra dimension, sometimes it seems gratuitous, and this time it felt like the weaker part of the book. Perhaps it worked OK as an introduction to create the mystery – why did this down the line guy dump his ideal girlfriend and end up facing a court marshal? – but by mid way I didn’t care so much about the parenthetical interpolations of (the son), and I pretty much could have done without the last few chapters.
Maybe that was part of Turow’s point – these very ordinary, even bland people did extraordinary things during the war – and the vivid war narratives are deliberately contrasted to contemporary domesticity. Maybe (the son) and his sister were meant to be unsympathetically portrayed, as egocentric and a bit petty. Maybe we’re meant to do a double take when we finally put together his slightly condescending view of his mother with the dynamic, unpredictable woman of the French resistance. Maybe. But I think I would have enjoyed the book more as standard chronological historical fiction.
For me the story came alive with the first person war narrative. Again, this might even be deliberate with the son’s comment along the lines of, “How could I write this book when it had already been written?”. The characters take on flesh – there’s real skill in the way nobody is grouping the soldiers together as a bunch of faceless ‘doggies’. Moreover the combat writing is gripping, particularly in the chilling account of playing dead among the bodies when pinned down by snipers.
To continue with my ‘in two minds’ theme, part of me thinks, ‘If the best part of this book is the impression of reading first hand accounts of actual battles, why not just read genuine eye-witness accounts?” But this doesn’t have to just be a rhetorical question – you may actually be better off reading a gifted author who has done extensive research (as I suspect Turow did) than eye-witness accounts by people who aren’t as able at conveying their experiences. The ideal is to read able communicators writing about their experiences, but Primo Levi’s don’t roll along every day. Maybe some people reading this can give me some recommendations.