After a court martial in January 1917, five Frenchmen convicted of self-mutilation (in order to avoid combat in WW I) are dragged along the network of zigzagging trenches to the improbably named frontline trench, "Bingo Crepuscule." What exactly happened in Bingo is as labyrinthine as the trenches themselves, but Mathilde Donnay, the fiancee of one of the soldiers, is a determined young woman whose wheelchair is unable to contain her fiercely independent and willful spirit. Aided by an indulgent, well-to-do father, a generous private investigator, soldiers who survived the conflict and the families of those who didn't, Mathilde begins the long and spotty process of re-creating events.
The story was fairly easy to follow, although it did dip back and forth a little, but I think it was helped by the fact that I had seen the film fairly recently. I always think it helps to have a picture although I know others prefer to do it the other way around!
The book was well-written, and the main character, Mathilde, was delightful. I kept having to say the names in my head because they were just so fabulous "Bingo Crepuscule", "Celestin Poux", "Kleber Bouquet". Just wonderful!
I have already read this book several times. For some reason, I seem to find myself returning to it every few years. Japrisot's writing is so beautiful and flows so well in translation (the novel was originally written in French) that it makes me want to take language lessons so that I could enjoy his writing in his native language.
The story concerns Mathilde Donnay, an intelligent and strong-willed protagonist who happens to be confined to a wheelchair because of an early childhood injury. Don't let this detail bother you, as it certainly doesn't bother Mathilde. She has far too many fish to fry to let a little thing like partial paralysis get in her way. As a young girl, Mathilde formed a lasting friendship with a boy named Manech, who became her fiancee after their childhood friendship developed into a strong and loving relationship. At the tender age of 19, Manech was sent off to the war, serving as an infantryman on the front of the French lines. Literally driven past the point of endurance by the horrors he has witnessed, Manech arranges for an accommodating soldier in German trench to shoot him in the hand. Manech is sentenced to death for this self-mutilation, along with four other soldiers. Their sentence is to be thrown into no-man's land, the space between the French and German trenches, with no weapons and their hands tied behind their backs. What happened to Manech and his fellow inmates becomes a mystery, one which Mathilde is not willing to let remain unsolved, and spends seven years trying to uncover. In pursuing this mystery she will uncover not only Manech's ultimate fate, but also learn the stories of those who witnessed it.
This is such a beautiful novel, and Mathilde is such a likable character. Each time I read it I find myself furiously turning the pages, hoping for a resolution to lives that were so unfairly interrupted.
Setting: WWI and post war France
Five soldiers were convicted of cowardice after shooting themselves in the hand. They are tied up and forced into enemy territory. Later the fiancee of one of the men receives a letter than convinces her to go looking for the truth behind their deaths and she will not stop until she finds out everything.
It is an intriguing idea, but I didn't really like the main character, Mathilde, and I never understood why she had this compulsion to keep asking questions. I didn't find her sympathetic or believable. I wound up skipping a lot of the story, but I made it through to the rather improbable end because I wanted to see what happened.
The stories of the war itself were well written and powerful. But overall, I really can't recommend the book. I kept putting it off, reaching for any other book besides this one. Finally I made myself finish it today, but if it felt like a chore, then it can hardly be worth reading, can it? 2 stars.
I found the beginning of the book difficult to follow, but once the characters settled down, the investigation was fascinating. Mathilde hires an investigator, sends letters, speaks to anyone who seems to have any information, then puts the pieces together.
The horrors of war, as if we don't already know them, are spelled out explicitly in this story. The more I read about World War I, the more I wonder how anyone could have ever started another war.
The difficult thing is that all of the characters have nicknames, and they call each other by different nicknames. This made the whole telling difficult to follow and quite a lot of work. I don't mind having to work to read a book, but if I do, it should be more satisfying than this one was.
Japrisot's writing is stirring and sweet, telling the story of a stubborn Mathilde who will not give up until she has found out what happened to five French soldiers executed for maiming themselves. At no point did I ever think Mathilde should give up or think badly of her for her stubbornness. All the characters in this book are written with sympathy, even the ones who are not such great people.
A Very Long Engagement reminded me very much of A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, another french novel I enjoyed very much.
As a love story it is unconventional because the two lovers, except in flashbacks, do not come together until the end of the story. The story takes place soon after the close of the Great War, so the war, too, is described in letters and reminiscences and letters. The detective story is unconventional because the detective is a young woman, Mathilde Donnay, who was told her fiancé, Manech, died in the war. She has never believed that, so now, the war over, she begins to investigate what really happened in the French trench known as Bingo Crepuscule.
It seems Manech, whom she has loved since childhood, was one of five men condemned to die for self-mutilation. Instead of facing a firing squad, however, they were forced into No Man's Land between the French and German armies. All five are reported dead, their bodies recovered and buried. Still Mathilde maintains hope and hunts down survivors from the trench to try to keep that hope alive. That she was crippled in a childhood accident and confined to a wheelchair perhaps leads her not to easily give up on the one man who loved her, as well as giving her the time to write all those letters and to dig out the truth in all the different versions she hears.
I watched, for maybe the sixth time, the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film based on the novel on the same day I finished the book. He changed a few minor details. Mathilde had polio and can still walk in the movie. She is an orphan in the film, not in the novel. She speaks with the character Tina Lombardi in the movie, not in the book. Still Jeunet stays amazingly true to the story and, in my view, improves on it.