War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

War and Turpentine

Stefan Hertmans

As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints an extraordinary portrait of one man's life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations.

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Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017
A New York Times Top 10 Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year

The life of Urbain Martien—artist, soldier, survivor of World War I—lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. In War and Turpentine, his grandson, a writer, retells his grandfather’s story, the notebooks providing a key to the locked chambers of Urbain’s memory.

With vivid detail, the grandson recounts a whole life: Urbain as the child of a lowly church painter, retouching his father’s work;dodging death in a foundry; fighting in the war that altered the course of history; marrying the sister of the woman he truly loved; being haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this tale, the grandson straddles past and present, searching for a way to understand his own part in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints an extraordinary portrait of one man’s life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations.

(With black-and-white illustrations throughout)

Advance Galley Reviews

I thought this book was incredibly beautifully written, but I just had issues fully engaging with the story. The author is clearly a gifted writer and I intend to read more of his work. I thought the story was interesting and I wanted to to love it more, but unfortunately it just didn't grip me enough.

This was a beautiful novel, but I simply could not get through it. The language was dense, the pace was excruciatingly slow, and the writer was too bogged down in the "faithfulness" of his grandfather's tale to keep up pace or form.

There are books that pull you along no matter what. And then there are some that put you off. Unfortunately, this book falls in the latter's category.

I have to admit that war literature is a particular love of mine, even though it is, by its very nature, often an emotionally-exhausting experience to wade through. When I saw that "War & Turpentine" was being offered up here, I knew I had to read it, because not only was it war literature, but it also focused on the relationship between a grandparent and grandchild. Hertmans does a beautiful job evoking emotion, but the truth of the matter is that it's the sections dedicated to Urbain's point of view, and not his grandson's, that are the pieces of this novel that truly shine. There were a few spots when it was a little bit dry, and a little bit of a struggle to get through - it seemed like I had been reading forever, but had only covered two pages - but as soon as Urbain became our narrator, it flew. Ultimately touching, and beautifully-written in places, "War & Turpentine" might have been a lot better served by letting Urbain take readers through his own life the whole time, but it's worth at least a try.

Urbain Martien grew up poor in Belgium, his body marked by scars from working a difficult job in an iron foundry, while his heart's desire was art. Inspired by his father's work as a church painter, Urbain pursued his passion through classes, books, and constant practice until his life was interrupted by his conscription into The Great War. He survived four horrific years of war to return home to more heartache. The loss of a great love affected him the rest of his life and it altered his approach to art. "War and Turpentine" refers to the forces that pulled him "between the soldier he had to be and the artist he'd wished to become". Before Martien died in 1981, he gave his journals to his grandson, the Flemish poet Stefan Hertmans. It took Hertmans years to actually read the journals and start to make sense of the stories and details he found there. "War and Turpentine" has been described as Hertman's poetic novelisation of his grandfather's memoirs. And this is where it gets tricky for me. On one hand, Hertman's poetic touch lent itself to some lovely language and phrases, but throughout the book I couldn't help wonder what differences existed between his grandfather's words and Hertsmans' novelisaton. Furthermore, in the two "turpentine" sections that start and finish the book, Hertsman's intersperses his own memories of his grandfather and observations into the narrative. I found it jarring and sometimes confusing to switch between the two points of view. I did like though how Hertmans includes stories of tracking down places that were significant in his grandfather's story, particularly a scene of a brutal battle. I could imagine how emotional it must have felt to stand in the same place as his grandfather did and reconstruct what happened based on his grandfather's journals. I also liked the inclusion of some of Martien's paintings in the last section of the book and Hertmans observations on how these paintings reflected Martien's life and his I think the "wa" section was the most well written part of the book and I appreciated reading an account of The Great War from the Flemish point of view, which I had not encountered before in my reading. Ultimately though I did not find anything especially unique about the narrative that elevated it above the plethora of war writing that is already out there. In the end I settled on three stars as my rating.

I found this a beautifully moving memoir of a grandson trying to remember and understand his grandfather and his grandfather's story. What I found most moving about this book was the middle section dealing with his grandfather's time in WWI on the Yser front. This was a perspective on the war that I had not experienced as much. You really feel the grittiness of what this type of warfare was and the separation of the men in the trenches from the higher ranking officers. This is no romanticized notion of war, but an honest look at a brutal episode in our history. This telling of Urbain's time at the front lines is framed by the telling of his life before and after the war. These sections have a very different romanticized feel to them. They move between Urbain's voice and the voice of his grandson trying to put together his narrative as he tells a piece of his grandfather's story, tells of visiting or trying to visit the locales of his grandfather's life to try to understand his grandfather, and explores the art that meant so much to his grandfather. To me, the strength of these sections is the artwork and how it really evokes a mood and helps the reader develop a better understanding of the mental and emotional spaces in which the grandfather moved.

I couldn't get into this no matter how hard I tried. I really wanted to get into this book and enjoy it. But I didn't. I kept dosing off every time I read it. Wasn't my cup of coffee.

War & Turpentine paints a life of great beauty and great sorrow. Urbain Martien lived a life of loss--of innocence, of love, of opportunities--but remained enchanted by art. Stefan Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather's early life through the journals he left behind. Those journals, and his many sketches and paintings, give light and shape to a man the author only knew in old age. The book is a little slow and can be dry at times, especially during descriptions of the Great War. If you're not into pre-WW2 depictions of life, it may not grab you. There's no big payoff or romantic end; just a quiet life devoted to art and the memories of those his grandfather lost.

As someone who recently inherited a collection of journals from a late family member, I've wondered how to share the stories with the world. The author, Stefan Hertmans, alternately writes of his experience with the journals, direct excerpts from the journals, and expansions on the stories in the journals. All of these are interesting, but the switching between could be jarring. I love memoirs, because they can break someone away from a stereotype, from being one-dimensional. Urbain was a reluctant soldier and a dedicated artist. He lost his true love but was a devoted husband and father to the woman who must've known she was a runner-up. The writing was slow but oftentimes beautiful. I received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review.

I received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review. Though it wasn’t a good fit for me, I think there are niche readers out there that might enjoy it. This memoir chronicles the life of the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a Dutch worker that fought in World War I. The son of a brilliant artist, Martien worked whatever jobs were available until the war broke out. He had hoped to become an artist like his father before him, but instead wound up painting buildings just to earn a living. Apart from its historic aspect, this title is one that I knew would be outside my comfort zone. Since retirement I’ve pushed myself outside my usual well-worn paths and taken a few risks, and though it doesn’t always work out for me, a few unlikely choices have affected me so favorably and so deeply that I have continued to push my own walls outward. I don’t know a thing about art, but I thought it might not matter. I pushed myself to read The Goldfinch, which was about a stolen museum painting but also much more, and once I read it, I couldn’t believe I had let the DRC pass me by. So I had this in my mind; War and Turpentine might be one more opportunity that I shouldn’t miss. The basis for the memoir is a series of notebooks that the author’s grandfather gave him, a journal of sorts, and the memoir itself is done not in the usual linear fashion, but as a series of snapshots. I confess I prefer my memoirs to start at the beginning and end at the end, if not the end of life, then at the end of the period being discussed. But an artist would perhaps not have thought that way; I can see the reason for selecting a different format, but because there was no discernible story arc, I found myself floundering and eventually avoiding the book altogether. The prospective reader should know that along with some really strong imagery and other word smithery, the memoir contains some very graphic violence. I suspect the ideal reader for War and Turpentine would be one that loves art, art history, and European history. It is for this niche audience that I recommend this book.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans is is part history, part biography, and part autobiography all compiled as a novel. It is the portrait of a man, an artist by choice and a soldier by necessity. The descriptive narration conjures up vivid images of time and place. The descriptive narration and the multiple narrators, however, also create distance between reader and character, making it more difficult to engage with the story. Read my complete review at http://www.memoriesfrombooks.com/2016/08/war-turpentine.html. Reviewed for the Penguin First to Read program.

The power and grace that “War and Turpentine” presents is stunning. Nominally a novel, it is much more than that. It is also history, memoir, social commentary and a portrait in prose of Urbain Emile Martien as perceived by the author, his grandson. It begins with two notebooks: The first contains Urbain’s recounting of a “near medieval childhood.” A time encompassed by privation and the love of his mother Celina, a headstrong young woman of the bourgeois, and Franciscus his father, a pauper who painted and retouched church frescoes for a living. The second notebook contains Urbain’s first-hand recounting of trench warfare on the Yser Front during World War I. It is a story of courage and horror worthy of Dante’s “Inferno.” But there are also scenes that are truly touching: The hours Urbain spent helping his father carefully retouch religious paintings; a moment in time where his mother first sees him shaving; sitting on the beach with his wife. However, Urbain Martien’s life was not a simple one. The author’s interwoven narrative fleshes out the man with vignettes of time spent his grandfather; of trips taken to shops to buy paints and books; of drawing and fencing lessons, or church services. Mystery touches the story; in the tragedy of a love one lost; in the estrangement of Gabrielle, his wife. Dementia and the frailty of old age play a hand. Eventually, that life comes full circle; an artist, then a soldier, then artist again: War and turpentine. This book is extraordinary. I highly recommend to all mature readers. Many thanks to New American Library and Penguin Random House's First To Read program for providing me with an advance galley in return for this review.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans is a heavy book. Hermans, a prominent Flemish poet, inherited his grandfather's memoirs and has fictionalized them, interspersing his own recreations with excerpts from the actual memoirs. The grandfather was born at the turn of the twentieth century and served heroically in World War I. Long quotations from the memoirs reveal the grandfather's own vivid and, at times, lyrical writing style, and I came to regret that Hertmans didn't just publish the memoirs in a lovely small volume, perhaps with memories of his relationship with his beloved grandfather appended. I also had a problem with Hertman's writing style. I found myself highlighting many metaphors and similes and long descriptions so I could go back later and try to make sense of them. I concluded that it can be difficult to cross the divide between prose and poetry, and in my opinion, Mr. Hermans was not successful in his effort. I am very grateful to have been given an advance copy of this book and hope that I will have the chance to review books from Penguin again. Many thanks!

Stefan Hertmans inherited his grandfather’s (Urbain Martien) papers detailing the grandfather’s participation in World War 1. Years later he chose to read and subsequently write a novelization of these papers. The book is divided into three sections: Hertmans’ recollections of his grandfather and Urbain’s childhood stories, World War I and the years following the war as Martien tried to move past the war. My favorite part was the author’s recollection of his grandfather. The later sections were quite sad but very moving. Thanks to First to Read for the chance to read this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The concept was very intriguing however I could not get through it. It was very slow to start and I couldn't even make it to page 100. Choose to call it quits and move on.

I found that I could just not get into this book no matter how much I tried. I am a historical fiction fan, but just could not gather enough interest in the story to proceed.

The idea behind this novel is quite beautiful: to examine through living memory and written memoirs the life of a soul-strong, loving, artistic man in the midst of poverty, war, and change. Stefan Hertmans’ War and Turpentine takes the WWI recollections of Urbain Martien, his grandfather, and uses them to create a larger panorama of Flemish society and culture in the early 20th century. As is often the case when a person or event is historical, the author needs to craft some passages to bridge and contextualize events and people, which is true here, so, purely speaking this is a novel and not a straight biography. Hertmans anguishes over having taken so long to do something with the memoirs but feels he must go beyond their parameters to give the fullest truth. The author places himself in the story through his own recollections and suppositions and includes Urbain’s artwork and other relevant pictures and pieces. The result is a historical and personal tapestry sewn with many well-written passages of visceral beauty, laced with interesting pictures of evocative pensiveness, and spun from the journals of Urbain, a man of Arnoldian sweetness and light. The authorial essays, which structurally serve as bookends to Urbain’s life, connect his experiences from past to present, providing multi-generational moments from the author’s great-grandfather to author’s own son. The memoirs come about perhaps because the author as a child breaks a family heirloom, so Urbain commits his life's journey to pen and paper. Even the most horrific incidents of war can bring the beauty of unlikely friendships and caring; the sublime feeling of love shares memory space with desolation and loss. Urbain’s heroism goes well beyond his war time bravery. At all times he has worked stoically to be accepting while finding some level of self-determination and pride. His world view becomes the novel which becomes the heirloom that transcends the generations.

The author attempts and succeeds in piecing together his grandfather's life story from both a written and oral record. This book gives a unique perspective on WWI, as the author's grandfather is Flemish and they were not treated well by their brothers in arms. Urbain had a rough childhood that was highlighted by poverty and family illness, yet had gilded edges in the time spent with his father while his father retouched and cleaned up paintings in numerous churches. The author pieces together the stories as they were relayed to him, the stories in the notebooks his grandfather left for him and his own forays to places that held importance in the stories relayed in both. The themes of love and loss, duty and desire are threaded throughout in Urbain's childhood, war years and later in life. I found the pictures of places and paintings to really enhance the story, rather than detract as they sometimes do. There were some slow parts, but when one lives to be 90, not every day is going to be an adventure.

Disclaimer: I won a digital copy of this book on www.firsttoread.com and this review is posted to www.goodreads.com How silly of me to start this book thinking it was fiction. I quickly re-assessed this notion after the first few paragraphs. Although the book dragged in some spots - surely, a life of 90 years is going to have some slow parts - it was a refreshing, historical, and sad story. I'm going to comment more on the author and the process of making this book than I am on the actual "story". What commitment Mr. Hertmans made to telling his grandfather's story. The memories he had to "remember", conjure out of his family - most of whom were long gone, and find in places 100+ years later; the notebooks and paintings guiding him along the way. It is worth your time to enjoy this ride with him just for the effort alone. Along the way, we learn of a man of true sacrifice - for his mother, his father, for his love, his wife, and most of all for himself. Men aren't made like this any longer and most of the story of war proves why not. It often made me think of my own grandfather and how I wish he left behind his legacy on paper. How I wish I could journey to foreign lands to places he fought in the war, met my grandmother and lived his extraordinary life, as well. How I could visit with my relatives and relive the past. Hence, Mr. Hertmans has sparked that in me. When do I begin?

In his international bestseller, War and Turpentine Stefan Hertmans fuses his grandfather's notebooks, his own personal memories and travels, as well as art history, into a captivating novel. He weaves the details of his grandfather’s life into a heartbreaking story of duty, love, loss, and understanding. Hertmans’ grandfather, Urbain Martien endures an impoverished life in early 20th century Ghent. Urbain longs to paint like his father, Franciscus a talented humble church painter. However, the tragedy of World War I interferes with his dream. Although Urbain proves himself a brave and most capable soldier, the horrors of trench warfare scar him both physically and mentally. Following the war, Martien returns home and soon believes he has found his happiness with Marie Claire. Unfortunately, she dies before they marry. Eventually he does marry, but it is out of familial duty, not true love. Later Hertmans mirrors the footsteps of his grandfather and discovers how places, events and paintings influenced Urbain’s life and Hertmans’ as well. Consequently, Hertmans comes to realize that the past haunted his grandfather, causing him to suffer with painting as his comfort and passion. Also, by examining Urbain's artwork, he better understands the man and his secrets. Stephan Hertmans’ descriptive, thoughtful novel is complicated at times, but nonetheless, it is also engaging and enlightening.

This novel is a big ol’ WOW from me. Using his grandfather’s written memoirs, historical facts, stories from family, and his grandfather’s paintings, Hertmans recreates his grandfather’s life and in doing so, attempts to find his own place in his family’s history. We learn of Urbain’s early childhood, growing up poor in Ghent, and what leads him to become a soldier in the first World War. We follow Urbain through the utter horrors of the war, to falling in love, and finally marriage and settling down. Hertmans’ technique is nothing less than masterful. He deftly switches between telling his grandfather’s story in his own voice to having Urbain live his story during the war and throughout the entire telling, it reads like a novel. It draws you into the story of this seemingly ordinary man who is, in actuality, a complex, talented, romantic, war hero. This is the first novel I’ve read, to my knowledge, that has been translated to English. The lyrical prose, the poetic descriptions, they are so brilliantly written that you can see the war-torn countryside, smell the nightmares of the trenches, and feel the heartache and loss experienced by Urbain. I have to wonder how much of that is McKay and how much is Hertmans or does it translate perfectly? War & Turpentine will be released in its translated English on August 9, 2016. Do yourself a favor and preorder it.

It's an interesting variation of a memoir, sub-written by a man who lived at the beginning of the 20th century, and overlapping with his grandson memoir-like reminiscences. I was wondering if it's purely non-fiction, or is there a drop of fantasy. But there are three main topics that book loops through constantly: family, art and war. Some parts were more interesting than others, but the most pleasure was coming out when they all merged into one.

The "battle between the transcendent" and the "memory of death and destruction" is eloquently shared through the life of Urbain Martien, the author's grandfather, in War and Turpentine, a book called a "future classic" by the Guardian. Thirty years after inheriting his grandfather's papers Stefan Hertmans finally read the memoirs. Urbain's early life in poverty drove him into the Ghent steel mills as a teenager. Then came the sudden epiphany that he, like his father who restored church murals, must be an artist. Urbain joins the Flemish Military Academy and is called up to service and into the horror of The Great War. "How far I have strayed from what I once hoped to become." Germany wanted a quick route to Paris, and neutral Belgium was in the way. When Belgium resisted, the German army invaded, murdering whole villages. The Rape of Belgium left 6,000 civilians dead, 1.5 million refugees, and 120,000 civilians used as forced labor. The military lost 100,000 or more dead. Hertmans' retelling of his grandfather's story is in three sections: the author's personal memories and his grandfather's early life; the brutal war years; the post-war years as Urbain cobbles together a life. The war section, for me, was most powerful with its vivid descriptions of death and suffering, the piles of human waste in the trenches, Urbain's honorable bravery and multiple injuries, the absurd carnage of human lives. "We're all cannon fodder together." And yet there are moments when Urbain sees nature's beauty, the artist's eye still seeking out the inspiration of color and form and association. After the war Urbain cobbles together a life: love, loss, and loneliness; the frailty of the body; and the accomplishment of one great original painting. "What mattered most to him was something he could not share with other. So he painted trees, clouds, peacocks, the Ostend beach, a poultry yard, still lifes on half-cleared tables--an immense, silent, devoted labour of grief, to put the world's weeping to rest in the most everyday things. he never painted a single war scene." The novel is an international best seller. I received a free ebook through Penguin First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

This is a wonderful memoir of the authors grandfather. Stefan Hertmans has done a wonderful job writing about his Grandfather in such a beautiful way it does say a lot about his relation with his grandfather. i liked the book very much and would recommend it to all.

War and Turpentine is separated into three parts: the first about Urbain's childhood and family; the second recounts his experiences during World War I; the third focuses on his life after the war. The writing is elegant, if a bit too alliterative at times, but quite beautiful are the author's descriptions of his great-grandparents' love and the tenderness with which great-grandmother Celine treats her husband, Franciscus, despite their poverty, cramped quarters, five children, and Franciscus's fragile health. Hertmans presents his grandfather's impoverished childhood in terms that show how the beautiful, the ugly, and the mundane intertwined to create the man Urbain would grow to be. Hertmans captures the great love Urbain had for his mother, Celine, and the tenderness of her love toward both her husband and her son. Before he was even old enough to shave, Urbain had already seen a great deal of the painful side of life. He was barely a teenager when he witnessed a horrific accident at an iron smith/mechanic's shop, and, as was the custom at the time, nobody talked about what happened; everyone kept to himself while things and people fell apart. Urbain also spent time working in a foundry at the age of thirteen, and the reader can feel the intense heat of liquid metal and see young Urbain's muscles tremble as he struggles to steady the basin of molten iron. I was also particularly moved by a scene from the Great War, describing animals swimming across a river in a flood during a lull between battles, "fleeing an unimaginable Armageddon . . . fleeing blindly like lemmings." One can only begin to imagine how tempting it must have been to want to flee with them, to swim away to a distant shore, to a place where one can look in any given direction and see more than insurmountable death and destruction. Urbain describes war as being "like the wrath of God, minus God." Powerful and poignant. My only real point of contention with the novel is that I felt the author's presence more than I wanted to. At times, images and sounds flowed over me in cascades; at other times, I was only too aware of the author's presence. Outside of that, really enjoyed reading War and Turpentine and found the prose both fluid-like and soothing, even when describing some of the darkest moments of Urbain's difficult life. I received access to the galley for free through the First to Read program, but all opinions are MY OWN.

The author, Stefan Hertmans, is a well-known Flemish poet. Apparently there is some debate over how much of his book, “War and Turpentine”, is fictional and how much is true. Indeed, the main character in the book, Urbain Martien, is the author’s grandson and he did bequeath his memoirs to him, which took Hertmans 30 years before reading. When questioned, the author has said that he only lightly edited his grandfather’s memoir. And yet it isn’t advertised as a memoir. The book starts out with Turpentine (his grandfather’s young days as a poor European). Part of the section is told by Hertmans as recollections of his grandfather and part is told by his grandfather and includes his recollections of his own father. I enjoyed this section the most as it dealt with the art produced by Urbain and his father. It beautifully portrays the life of the poor a century ago. I especially enjoyed the photos of the artwork referenced and the personal photos contained throughout the book. There are also essays and mediations contained in this section. Then there is a long section, the war section, told by Urbain. This is probably the best written part of the book and I tend to think this may have been the bulk of the grandfather’s writings, though it’s written with the heart of a poet, which Hertmans is. It’s a horrific accounting of Urbain’s experiences in the war. What struck me most about this section were the parts when Urbain would recount what he was seeing in front of him and compare it to his beautiful memories of the country, lighting up the stark difference. There were parts that were difficult to read due to their nature. The book then goes back to Turpentine and tells of Urbain’s life after the war and his marriage to Gabrielle. This section has a sad story to tell. As well as this book is written and the beautiful poetical prose throughout, I just never really seemed to connect with the characters. In the Turpentine sections, the author jumps around quite a bit between the author, his grandfather and his great-grandfather and would sometimes lose me. There were many relatives that I couldn’t keep straight. I think if I had read it as a memoir, it would have given me a different perspective than reading it as fictional based on fact. I found it a bit disconcerting not knowing what was true and what wasn’t.

This is a study in stark, shocking contrasts. It’s the story of Urbain Martien – artist, soldier, war survivor. Deftly woven from the author’s own recollections of his grandfather and two notebooks discovered after Martien’s death in 1981, it reads more like a tragic, romantic mystery than a memoir. Tracing his grandfather’s life through stories and paintings, photographs and sketches, Hertmans slowly brings his grandfather’s life into focus. The first section of the book offers contextual background, describing the author’s memories of his grandfather and offering clues that lead to a deeper understanding of the man who struggled with “…the battle between the transcendent, which he yearned for, and the memory of death and destruction which held him in its clutches.” Martien’s father was a painter who repaired murals and artwork in churches, schools, and monasteries. Martien often accompanied him, and descriptions of the peace and sanctity he experienced while watching his father paint in silent churches are balanced against horribly graphic scenes in the stockyards and gelatin factories of the late nineteenth century. There’s a clear tension here: between life and death, art and war, creation and destruction. The dichotomy of opposing forces on both a micro and macro level serves as a theme for the book, echoed in the city of Ghent itself before Martien is old enough to understand the tensions at play. The author writes, “Ghent sensed that it was shaped by the historical forces of rationalist planning on the one hand and picturesque romanticism on the other…” And during the World’s Fair in 1913, Ghent finds itself further torn between French and German influences… foreshadowing the fault lines along which the world will soon break. Martien becomes aware of rifts between Catholics and socialists, between laborers and politico-economic leaders, between those who appreciate and understand fine art and those without the luxury of time to study it. And then he is conscripted to fight in the Great War. The second section of the book leans more heavily on his notebooks, I presume, and is written with all the horror and grief of experience. Scenes of pastoral beauty are broken by gritty depictions of battleground brutality in the tradition of Homer – but without the sense of honor or heroism inherent in the old classics. Here there are monsters using children as decoys, devastating killing machines and chemical warfare and industrialized death on a scale Homer never could have imagined. The author says the aftermath of battle is “…like the wrath of God, minus God.” Martien is injured three times and by the war’s end amasses a collection of medals and commendations that mean little to him after the horrors he’s seen, but it’s not until his beloved bride-to-be dies from pneumonia following the Spanish flu in 1919 that his spirit breaks. He marries her sister – and lives with the loss of his true love for years. He hides his pain in his art until, more than a generation later, his grandson carefully pieces together the truth of Martien’s emotional landscape and a clearer sense of who he was as a man. Though written in prose so lyrical it flirts with poetry, the grim, unflinching juxtaposition of bloody war and creative beauty is jarring. Still, Hertmans has painted a poignant, profoundly compelling picture of a humble man caught in a horrific, historic tempest. The war leaves deep emotional and psychological scars, but the grace of Martien’s spirit shines in the art that anchors the remaining years of his life. I don’t ordinarily read memoirs and I tend to avoid war stories, but I’m glad I read this one and highly recommend it.

I received an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. This was a slow read, but there was always some lure to bring you along with the life of the man this writer knew. There were periods that I was lost but did find my way. It showed development of the Grandfather as a person before conscription and gave to the strength of the character as he accepted the responsibility of the war. No matter what dire circumstances His art had a purpose. Although tedious for myself, the historical telling made sense and was good coming from a different direction.


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