The book clearly states, “a novel” on the book jacket. So, I wondered why it seemed so much like a combination of a biography and a memoir. That’s because it is. It was not until I began to read reviews (I usually don’t consult them before reading a book.) to find out why I was so dissatisfied with this highly recommended book, that I discovered it is not a novel. It is cobbled together, in a beautiful manner, from Hertmans’s grandfather’s journals of world war one, Hertmans’s memories of his father, and the author’s reflections upon visiting the locations of his grandfather’s war. The “novel” label may cover liberties taken with the journals and Hertmans’s memories. As the reader, it confused me.
The prose is beautiful, poetic, even in translation. Hertmans is best known as a Flemish poet. The story does not cover new ground by any means. It does present a memorable impression of Flemish poverty in pre-war Belgium. It also raised again my interest in the eternal hatred between Wallonia (French speaking) and Flanders (Dutch speaking) areas of Belgium. In the war, the French were the officers and the Flemish the cannon fodder. This animosity continues today.
If I were to review this as a novel, it would be tagged disjointed and bland, though beautifully written. As a memoir/biography it is more understandable and satisfying to read.