I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!
It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.
I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.
As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.
It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.
Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.