Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

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Newly widowed Nora doesn’t want to answer her door. In the Irish town of Wexford in the middle of the 20th century, it is customary for people to stop by the home of someone in mourning in the evening. Without phones there’s no way to call first to see if they are welcome, so they just come and knock on the door.

Despite her yearning to be alone, Nora always opens the door. To a neighbor who commiserates with her, she says, “‘They mean well. People mean well.’”

Bound by convention, missing her husband’s steady presence, Nora must begin making her own choices. As the sole support for her four children, she is first confronted with financial decisions. Later she has to contend with emotional issues as her two young sons come to terms with their own grief. Their two older sisters are away at school.

Nora is a fascinating character. She does not seem to be close to anyone, now that Maurice is gone. Though she says at one point that she never loved her mother, she’d expected at some point they would find a place to meet. However, it hadn’t happened before her mother has passed away. Nora is not interested in being with her two sisters and aunt, though she and they make the customary visits.

She is not even close to her children, thinking at one point “that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking.”

She seems to hold herself at the same distance. Practical, focused on the everyday things that must be done, she barely touches the fringes of introspection. The reader, too, is held at a slight distance from her. Tóibín uses a close third person point of view, telling the story through Nora’s eyes, but her lack of self-analysis leaves us as much in the dark as she is. We hear her think one thing and then see her do the opposite, and have to assume that she is giving in to convention again or to what another person wants her to do.

When we discussed this novel in my book club, one person pointed out that much of the drama in this quiet book came from the space between Nora’s thoughts and her actions. Whether you call it drama or conflict or tension, I think that this analysis is accurate.

I called it a quiet book, though things large and small happen, and there are plenty of emotional upheavals. Another book club member praised the way political events of the time were woven into the story, giving it additional depth and universality.

In the end, though, what we all liked about this book was the close look at an ordinary life, one of the reasons we like Anne Tyler’s novels as well. A master storyteller like Tóibín can make us care about a single, ordinary individual. He can find the value in that life and as a result help us understand more about ourselves and our own lives.

In the first chapter, a neighbor Mrs. Lacey mentions her daughter. Ellis Lacey is the young woman whose story is told in Tóibín’s best-seller Brooklyn, recently made into a film. What did you think of that story? How do you think it compares with this one?

The Likeness, by Tana French

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In this second mystery from Tana French, the murder of a young woman drops like a stone into the world of her four friends, and of the detectives investigating it. Ripples spread, unsettling all of their lives and certainties and waking deeper currents.

I read this book and French’s earlier one, In the Woods, a few years ago, long enough ago that the details have faded but my memory of liking them hadn’t. That made them a good choice for listening to in the car on a couple of long trips: the story would come back to me enough that I wouldn’t have to concentrate hard to follow it but I could enjoy again the writing I loved.

The first person point of view makes these two books especially vivid. In the Woods is narrated by Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin murder squad. With The Likeness, his former partner Cassie Maddox, who has moved to the Domestic Violence unit, is pulled back and plunged almost against her will into investigating the death of Lexie Maddox, found stabbed in a remote cottage.

Frank Mackey, her boss from when she worked underground, back before the murder squad, persuades Cassie to impersonate the dead woman. The two young women look almost exactly alike, rare enough, but even more astonishing is that the dead woman had assumed the identity of Lexie Maddox, one of Cassie’s undercover identities. Mackie tells Lexie’s four friends that she survived and then sends Cassie in to live among them, to see if she can identify a suspect.

This is the part I loved. The five of them, PhD students at Trinity, live in a dilapidated country mansion which Daniel has inherited. He and Abby, Rafe, Justin, and Lexie are completely self-sufficient socially, a tight unit: innocently playful and sweet together, they become an armored phalanx among strangers.

Even just driving up to the house and seeing them on the steps Cassie is thoroughly charmed, in the deeper sense of being almost under a spell. It all seems so familiar. And the golden weeks that follow—working on the house together, dancing to Abby’s singing, reading and talking in the evenings—tempt Cassie with their promise of a different life. I was reminded of the beginning of Brideshead Revisited when Charles Ryder falls in love with Sebastian’s life. French captures so well the fun of being part of a tight group of friends, when you’re young and it’s all happening for the first time and everything seems unbearably sweet.

Even as Cassie slips more deeply into their easy camaraderie, though, she is looking for anything that might point to a suspect. She explores the local folks’ hatred for the house’s inhabitants and Daniel’s cousin’s frustration over not inheriting the house himself. She begins to see cracks in the family. She hears secrets whispered at night, notices Justin’s mounting fears and Rafe’s increased drinking.

There are plenty of questions to keep my mind buzzing, not just the big ones of who killed Lexie and why, but questions about each of the four friends, about why Lexie needed a new identity, about Mackey’s intentions and what Cassie herself will choose to do at each turn.

And the story is hauntingly beautiful at times, such as when we are drawn into the world these friends have created, their hour of splendour in the grass. There is much here about innocence and responsibility and the desire for freedom that can sometimes drown out everything else. And Cassie, with her strong moral code, her chameleon-like abilities, and her doubts and temptations makes an excellent traveling companion.

What books do you like to listen to in the car?