Children’s book review tour! Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”  ― Wilfred Owen

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

51QTsd1WFBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was never any question of including this book on my tour list. Before I had even received the book I knew that I loved it. Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier is exactly what the title implies; the diary of an unknown soldier.

One winter’s morning, Barroux was walking down the streets of Paris when he passed a house which was being emptied of rubbish; piles of old belongings, wrappers and refuse had been placed in the street. ‘We are emptying the basement. Help yourself if you like’ he was told by one of the people ferrying rubbish onto the street. It was at this point that Barroux picked up an ageing yellow diary from amongst the rubbish. A diary which belonged to an unknown soldier serving during world war one. Barroux took the diary and from it created Line of Fire, a graphic novel depicting the words written by an unknown French soldier…may his words never be forgotten.

This book was such a find! I’m over the moon to have discovered it, read it, and to have a copy of my own.

The illustration style fits so perfectly with the subject; you can almost imagine the soldier himself drawing them. They are simple, almost childish, yet graphic, as though they have been scratched with a piece of charcoal salvaged from the embers of long extinguished fire. They remind me, in some ways, of images I have seen drawn by soldiers on the front line. Although the sketches undoubtedly carry Barroux’s distinctive style, there is much in the way of reality present in the scenes. I am reminded of the images in A Soldiers Sketches Under Fire by Harold Harvey – real images sketched by a soldier on the front line.


It feels strange to review the words of a man when I know nothing about him. Although Barroux is listed as the author of the book, the words belong to the Unknown Soldier. They are exactly as they were found, although in the case of my copy they have been translated into English from their native French. They are powerful words, and although it does not take long to read the book, the effect of the story is far reaching and potent.

The Unknown Soldier speaks of the things which are sure to have plagued any man on the front line of WWI. His fatigue, it is crippling, and he feels dead on his feet – ‘My feet are bleeding, My legs can no longer hold me up. This isn’t a man who’s walking but a sheep following the flock.’ He is never able to rest for more than a few hours before being aroused, often in the dead of night, to move on to the next place. He takes to sleeping on piles of straw, where they are available, next to his companion Fernand, sleeping close together for warmth, and, I expect, comfort.

Our Soldier worries about those he has left behind. He is so worried, plagued by worry each time he receives no word from home. It is moving to see the worry from the other side. It is well known that those that are left behind will worry about their father, brother, son, or husband who has gone away to fight, but the soldiers words show that the worry tortures him equally. ‘The women weep. It’s up to us to show that we’re stronger than they are and convince them that we will return.’ When he does hear news his release is evident, as though he has let out a deep breath of relief; ‘at last I receive some postcards from my dear wife’.

The horror of war is also painted on the pages of the diary, not so much in Barroux’s drawings, but in the soldier’s words. The words are not complicated or flowing, but to the point, and powerful – you can smell the gunpowder, hear the crackle of artillery fire, and see the horrors that the Unknown Soldier scrawls within the pages of his diary. ‘This is where a powerful shell landed on a platoon of the 6th company, which was partially destroyed’ he writes, having seen the remains of a soldiers leg hanging from a tree branch.


The Unknown Soldier seems to have made a narrow escape from the horrors of war, although no one knows now anything about the man who kept this diary.  He writes of being injured while forced to advance under the eruption of overhead shrapnel, and of the bravery of a fellow soldier, without whom he may not have survived. ‘While he’s bandaging my arm, the shells continue to rain down on us. I shall never forget the devotion of this soldier who didn’t think twice about risking his life, staying close in order to tend to me.’

Once out of the line of fire, he is faced with a lengthy journey to a hospital, all the while in indescribable pain, and with a raging fever which forbids him rest and sustenance. It is once he arrives at hospital, and his fever begins to subside that he is faced with another, unimagined issue – boredom. For a week we hear nothing of the Unknown Soldier, and then, he writes of his boredom, the slowness of the days, his heavy heart, and his feeling that life is carrying on all the same outside of the hospital walls.

‘Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t stay in the line of fire’ – and with these words the Unknown Soldier’s story ends.

Line of Fire has left me feeling such a strange mix of emotions, with so many questions running through my mind. The power of the Unknown Soldier’s last words are incredible, and only made more so by the fact that he, undoubtedly, never expected anyone to read his diary. Who was this man? And why did he stop writing? Questions I will find myself often asking, and will never know the answer to.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone. Even if you don’t feel drawn to Barroux’s illustrations the power of the Unknown Soldier’s words will not fail to captivate. History students, WWI fanatics, children and adults alike, this is a lesson in history, and an important one at that. Read it and pass on the recommendation.

“You can’t patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” ― Michael Connelly

Invisible illness

Thank You for Your Service ― David Finkel


David Finkel, author of the New York Times bestselling book The Good Soldiers- a journalistic account of the lives of the men from the 2-16 infantry battalion on the front lines of Baghdad, emerges once again with a gripping addition to his work – Thank You for Your Service. This new book takes a look into the lives of soldiers who serve in Iraq, this time with a glimpse into what happens when they return home.

In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel meets with men from 2-16 to look at the way the war has affected their lives outside the battlefield. First person accounts of adjusting to life outside Iraq throw light on a new war fought by many soldiers, this time with themselves.

The wars of the 21st century have been well covered by journalists, reporters and authors from across the world, but none like Finkel. He presents a harrowing account of the psychological state of many of our modern war veterans.

The book begins with an introduction to Adam Schumann – “the great soldier who one day walked in the aid station and went through the door marked COMBAT STRESS and asked for help”. After making the difficult decision to return home, Schumann is plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, memory loss and crippling depression. Other veterans featured include Tausolo Aieti, who forever sees the image of his fallen comrade in his dreams asking the question “why didn’t you save me?”; and widow Amanda Dorster as she struggles to comprehend life without her husband.

The book presents an in-depth analysis of the psychological condition of war veterans from first person accounts and psychological analysis from professionals. The most common conditions suffered by those returning from the battlefield are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). While many people have heard of these conditions, not much is actually known about them. Finkel uses soldiers’ own accounts to put them into perspective.

PTSD is the psychological damage caused by experiencing traumatic events, such as those experienced by Schumann, who carried a wounded comrade down a flight of stairs, with blood from the man’s head wound pouring into his mouth – a taste and smell he cannot shake. Symptoms of PTSD can include depression, flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety. While TBI stems from physical brain trauma, such as that experienced by Aieti, who was in a Humvee travelling down a route lined with palm trees, when the vehicle rolled over three buried 130 mm artillery shells “everything was right and boom it happened so fast”.

TBI can cause memory loss, confusion and impulsivity, and issues with balance, with sufferers struggling to carry out the simplest of tasks.

Many people are unaware of these issues and the extent to which they affect those returning from war. Finkel’s research shows it is a much graver issue than many expect, with PTSD affecting 20-30 per cent of US soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The intimate encounters relayed in the book give a clear and frightening portrayal of the long-term effect of being in a warzone, the terrifying psychological state of veterans and the stigma surrounding psychological illness. The book relays diary entries, conversations, court cases, and tales of abuse and suicide, exploring in detail the far-reaching effects of war as it leaks into the homes of the veterans.

For the soldiers and their families, the journey to recovery is tough. Many soldiers are faced with the realisation that society is far less understanding of psychological illness than they are of physical conditions. Widow Amanda Dorster was given US$100,000 dollars in death gratuity, which she refers to “oops money” or “blood money”, while in the Schumann household money has never been tighter since Adam returned from the Iraq.

Finkel follows Schumann’s return home from Iraq, to the time when, years later, he graduates from the Pathway Institute for war veterans, and continues his healing at home with his family.

The book serves as an almost novelistic account; such is the intimacy of the stories and conversations between families, and the emotions expresses by soldiers and their spouses.

Thank You for Your Service is an incredibly thought-provoking and gripping book – the writing methods and use of first person accounts render the text incredibly accessible. I would echo the thoughts expressed in many other reviews of this volume and in urging anyone interested in PTSD and the events of the Iraq war to read Finkel’s work.

This review was first published in Global: the international briefing. Many thanks to Scribe for providing a free review copy of the book.

“On the journey towards the beloved, you live by dying at every step” ― Nadeem Aslam

Devastatingly beautiful.

A Thousand Splendid Suns ― Khaled Hosseini


‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ was published in 2007 by Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini. If you haven’t heard of this book, you might be familiar with his first novel, ‘The Kite Runner’, a best seller back in 2000. I never read The Kite Runner, and only happened upon A Thousand Splendid Suns because a friend recommended it to me, and after reading it, I’m finding it slightly difficult not to run out and buy The Kite Runner right now, if it is anywhere near as beautiful as A Thousand Splendid Suns I know it will be money well spent.

Hosseini takes the name of this novel from an excerpt in the poem Kabul by 17th century Afghani poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. The title seems to fit the novel perfectly, especially when one reads excerpts from the poem itself. The poem describes the beloved city Kabul, a Kabul which is not present throughout the majority of the book, but lives on in the hearts of the citizens of the city:

One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

The novel is written in three parts, and follows the life of two Afghani women, Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Herati gentleman, and Laila, 19 years Miriam’s junior, born 500 miles from Herat in the city of Kabul, into a humble, but loving family. Hosseini follows the two women, tracing a story in which these two very distinct characters, who have had such different starts in life, find their lives intertwined, and discover in one another an unlikely and beautiful companion.

Hosseini begins with Mariam, a young girl growing up in the 1960s on the outskirts of Herat, a small city in Afghanistan. Mariam resides with her mother, Nana, a spiteful, epileptic woman, who was once employed as a servant in the house of her father, Jalil. Hosseini writes of how Mariam dotes on her father, living for the time once a week when he will visit her, his only illegitimate child. However, Mariam soon discovers the shame that she brings upon her father, and at the age of just 16, she is forced into marrying Rasheed, a 45 year old a widower, far away in the city of Kabul.

As someone very far removed from the lives of women like Mariam it was incredibly moving to read Mariam’s thoughts when she realised that her father, the man she had been so infatuated with, was ashamed of her, that his whole family was ashamed of her. The devastating discovery that “she was being sent away because she was the walking, breathing embodiment of their shame”. The injustice of Mariam’s situation made me feel so angry, I wanted desperately to have her turn around and refuse to leave, to refuse the future they had condemned her to. But of course a woman such as Mariam has no choice in these matters.

At first, the life which Mariam is introduced to doesn’t seem too terrible. Rasheed treats her well, and buys her gifts. Mariam recounts with pride the secret married glances they exchange out in the streets, and even feels flattered by Rasheed’s insistence that she wears a burkha. Unfortunately for Mariam this innocent happiness is short lived, and when Rasheed discovers that Mariam cannot fulfil a wife’s duties he begins to abuse her both physically and verbally.

In the second part of the book Hosseini introduces the reader to a very different family, in a house down the street from Rasheed and Mariam. Laila is the only daughter of a loving family, born into a secure home, full of hope and love. However, the beginning of the Afghani war against the soviets puts a swift end to Laila’s innocent childhood, and when both her older brothers leave to join the fight, Laila learns that her future is no match for her brothers’ past. Intelligent, beautiful and ambitious, Laila is different from the other girls her age; she seems to have greater things in stock for her than an arranged marriage and the life of a housewife. Therefore it comes as somewhat of a shock when Laila suddenly finds herself without her family, and faced with the prospect of lasting out on the streets on her own. This leads her to make the devastating decision to become Rasheed’s second wife.

It takes until the third and final section of the book for the relationship between Mariam and Laila, of which the story itself surrounds, to fully come out. Initially, Mariam is threatened by the presence of a new wife in her home and she refuses to have anything to do Laila. That is until Laila gives birth to her first child, Aziza, and an innocent, wholesome presence in the house softens the ground between the two women:

“…she marvelled at how, after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.”

Gradually they begin to see each other not as rivals, but as allies against Rasheed’s abusive, manipulative ways:

“For the first time, it was not an adversary’s face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured.”

These women ultimately realise that they need something to hold onto, and that their only one hope of finding any warmth and solidarity, was in the arms of one another.

While Mariam and Laila cannot escape from the cruelty and injustice which surround their lives, they cope with their situation by finding hope in one another, supporting each other like pair of crutches. The injustice faced by the women is astounding, and as laws forbid Afghani women from running away, there is little hope for the women; even the authorities routinely turn a blind eye to violence at the hands of a husband, because “What goes on in man’s house is his own business”. Again, read through the eyes of a very different world, it is almost inconceivable to imagine what goes on in the life of these women. And more than anything remarkable and beautiful that in spite of everything, Laila and Mariam maintain hope by clinging to the love they have for one another, finding in each other the strength to carry on.

The bond which Laila and Marian share gives real beauty to Hosseini’s work. Although the premise of the story itself is tragic, the love, care and compassion that exists in spite of all this is incredibly heart-warming. They are dependent, both physically, and emotionally, on one another, and they survive, in spite of everything by putting their faith in their love for one another.

Hosseini adds an historical aspect to the novel, without making the history overwhelming. Although there are sections of the text dedicated to the war raging within Afghanistan, it is the way the war affects the lives of the Afghanis that stands out beyond anything else. Hosseini is successful in making the novel historically accurate, without weighing it down like a historical text book. At the same time, although the story itself is fictitious, and Laila and Mariam are not the names of characters that really lived, the plight of women living in Afghanistan is only too real. I find the creation of fictional characters to express real events to be very effective at evoking feeling in the reader. When I read a book I often feel that I connect with the characters on a very personal level, and the empathy I feel towards the character is somehow far greater than that towards real people who I have read about through historical texts.

Ultimately, A Thousand Splendid Suns is more than just the story of Mariam and Laila’s friendship. It is the story of Afghanistan, and of the Afghani people. Hosseini is concerned with conveying the effect that living in such as society has had, not just on the women, but on everyone.