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.

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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.

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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.

“And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter— they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.” ― Sylvia Plath

There are two sides to every story

The Confidant – Hélène Grémillon

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Another truly beautiful piece of literature to add to my read list. ‘The Confidant’ was given to me by my partners godparents as a Christmas present last year, and sadly ended up hidden in the bottom of a box until a few weeks ago, one of the downsides of having moved house and never fully unpacked. Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ I was excited at the prospect of getting started on another piece of French literature, and potentially giving myself a nice topic of conversation for our next family dinner.

‘The truth lies hidden in the past’ is such a fitting tagline for this novel. Grémillon draws the reader into the depths of a long hidden secret, of longing, forbidden love, betrayal, and revenge. The novel achieves an almost perfect blend of historical narration, thrilling suspense and harsh reality, the result of which is truly stunning.

It is 1975, and in her apartment in Paris, Camille receives an anonymous letter, a letter narrating the lives individuals seemingly unrelated to Camille, surely the letter has been sent to her by mistake? The anonymous letters continue to fill the post box of Camille’s Paris flat, and a long hidden secret begins to unravel before her very eyes. As the story unfolds Camille becomes desperate to discover the source of the letters, before finally succumbing to the realisation that it is her own story which is being told. The story of pre war France, a young boy in love, a young girl eager to please, and a rich and lonely madame is inextricably linked to Camille’s unlikely friendship with the concierge of her apartment building, the recent death of her mother, and the future of her unborn child.

What struck me about this book was the profound effect it has on my emotions. As the secret unraveled I found myself taken on an emotional journey of empathy and hatred of Annie, and simultaneous hatred, and empathy for Madame M. There are two sides to every story, and Grémillon highlights this so perfectly, by the end of the novel I felt as though neither character did anything wrong. Their actions were inevitable, driven by emotion and instinct.

The story presents a fierce, raw examination of women, coupling motherhood and feminism with love, passion, and desire. In this respect there was one theme in particular that struck a chord with me, and that is Grémillon’s unrestrained examination of infertility.

Madame M’s yearning to have a baby is spoken of at length throughout the novel, and I find the way in which her desires are portrayed incredibly moving. The world around M seems almost super fertile, numerous women in Paris are falling pregnant, and the newspapers are awash with stories crying for the need for more babies:

‘Have more Children! Have more children, France must make up for her losses in 1914’.

M is described as going to all lengths to sure her infertility, even physically injuring herself in a desperate hope that someday she will discover a solution. She describes her constant consumption of an aphrodisiac made from wine and spices,  resorting even to bathing in the concoction to the point where:

‘Over time my skin acquired a spicy scent that disgusted me’

Gremillon delves further into the realms of M’s depression, describing at length her dismay at her sudden transformation into ‘the infertile woman’. What I think is the most striking description of this comes during a dinner with her Husbands family, his grandmother makes an announcement that someone at the table is with child, and the guests begin to guess who it could be:

‘Every name except Granny’s and my own. Because it was no longer possible for her, and for me, it never had been.’

This seems to be time when M finally succumbs to the fact that she will forever be the elephant in the room, the person whom everyone must be careful around, who is looked upon with pity. I found reading the following passage quite emotional, my heart goes out to anyone, who is ever made to feel this way:

‘Suddenly her eyes met mine and she looked away at once, her broad radiant smile frozen on her face, and a moment of awkwardness spread round the table. Silence. The game had yielded to the weight of reality, my reality. At that moment I realised I had become ‘the infertile woman’ in the family, the one whose presence absolutely precluded any displays of joy , the one who was so unfortunate that the happiness of others could prove fatal. My shame was confirmed

M’s story touched on something I feel is shied away from far too often: the unspoken ‘shame’ that is placed upon infertile woman. I found myself asking why? Why is being infertile considered something to be embarrassed about? The following quote was taken from a comment on a feministphilosophers blog post ‘On Becoming Infertile – Part 1’:

‘I feel like I’ve often been treated like a faulty baby machine rather than a person. The guilt, the shame, the sense of failure, the indignation and the grief have all been a lot to deal with’ (Commenter: L Stokes).

The idea that anyone should be made to feel this way is incredibly sad. M’s story took place in the early 20th century, and this is an issue that is still felt today. I very much admire Grémillon for approaching the subject.

There is so much more I could say about this book, so many themes which could be explored, but I feel I have written enough for now. For anyone reading this who has not, I would urge you to read the book, it is a beautifully written, thought provoking read. You will not be disappointed as you read the final page, and see the secret of fully unraveled and laying before you in its entirety. The novel is captivating to read and satisfying to have read.

When I finished ‘The Confidant’ I felt the indescribable mix of sadness and fulfillment which accompanies the completion of a really fantastic novel.

“It is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology” – Noam Chomsky

The making of a very thoughtful evening

The Little Prince ― Antoine De Saint-Exupéry

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First published in 1943 this sweet little novella is the most famous work of Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, and has been translated more time than any other book in the French language.

This is another book I found nestled cosily amongst our bookcases one evening. It’s a tiny little thing so I decided to spend the evening getting to know the Little Prince hidden within it’s pages a bit better.

The Little Prince seems at first to be written for children, but there is a very obvious philosophical message behind the story. I feel that on this level the story has appeal to both children and adults, anyone sat reading this book with a child on their knee is sure to enjoy it just as much as the little one.

Saint-Exupéry tells the story of a very thoughtful chap, who as a child learned only to draw boa constrictors from the inside and outside, and was terribly upset to find no one else fully appreciates his artwork.

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As an adult the voice of the story becomes stranded in the desert, and makes an unlikely friend. Someone who finally understands his drawings of so long ago – ‘the Little Prince’.

This charming little story traces the tale the Little Prince has to tell, of his travels across the universe, before finding his way to earth, and to our humble narrator.

The Little Prince visits many planets on his travels, mainly inhabited by a single person. Each character is more ‘odd’ than the last in the eyes of the Little Prince. A king – Obsessed with giving orders, A businessman – obsessed with money, A drunk – obsessed with drink and his own misery. The Little Prince continues on his travels, never fully understanding the people he has met along the way.

Behind Saint-Exupéry’s dear little story, there is an allegory of the human condition. The inhabitants of these planets are so preoccupied with the things that seem so strange to this innocent little mind. Not one of the people the Little Prince encounters is able to make a valid argument for the importance of his work. While the Little Prince cares only for doing what makes him happy, about asking questions, and caring for his possessions back on his own planet, including the love of his life -a beautiful rose.

Overall I found The Little Prince to be quite a satisfying read. It’s a short book, and can easily be enjoyed all in one go; in fact I found that once I started to read it I didn’t want to stop until it was finished. The book appeals to me on a many levels, I think it is a lovely little story for children ― I also think a fair few adults will enjoy the story for what it is ― but I also really enjoyed the allegorical side of the tale.