The Daily Telegraph calls this book ‘A delicate complex moving novel’ but when Ivan, my son, recommended me, he said it was simple to read. He finished all 208 pages in three days. So what’s my take? This book is simple to read as the author uses short sentences, crisp and precise. There’s no bombastic words, rare vocabulary or long descriptive sentences. In fact, I enjoy many of the metaphors he sprinkled in his description. (…the Spitfire pilot dived upon them and they scattered like a flock of clumsy, wingless pigeons…)Yet, it’s complex because the book is divided into chapters narrated by many characters who are linked somewhat in a wispy relationship with each other, with the chapters toggling between now and flashbacks. There are so many characters that I have difficulty keeping track of them, except for the main ones who appears a few times. Which makes me wonder, are the other sub-characters really necessary? Perhaps the sub characters, Sebastian and Danny highlighted the main gist of the connection, with the exception of Martin who reappeared in Hugo’s life three times in his lifetime.
There is really no plot in the book, but a rumination of reflection and narratives by each character, as they recount and recall their lives and relationship. Some chapters are written as streams of consciousness with timeline shifting abruptly from flashback to now without warning. The two main characters are John and Mr Hugo, who both survived WWII rather tragically. John’s family thought him dead until he came home. Mr Hugo lost half of his head and his identity, and yet both lived until a ripe old age, and in the process changing the lives of the people they come into contact with in a positive way.
At the end of the book, we connect Mr Hugo to John, both who were enemies but who shared a meal during the war before separating, never to reconnect again. Yet, they are somehow linked by people in their lives (which I have trouble connecting the dots until I drew out the map.)
I love the author’s prose. For example, as John recounted how he was filled with remorse after he accidentally killed a bird when he was seven, and while walking with his father to look for the dead bird to bury it, he noted the how other people went on with their lives while he suffered – ‘The ease of their lives stung sharply.’ Or, ‘The sky was very open. Unlimited breathing.’
If you think you like such novel, go ahead to read it with an open mind. Like I did.