Saturday, August 20, 2005

Book Review - "The Sojourn."

The Sojourn
by Alan Cumyn

Sixty-four thousand Canadian servicemen were killed during the First World War, mostly while fighting along the Western Front in Flanders. Canada sent an army of half a million volunteers to serve in that apocalyptic "war to end all wars," so it is odd that very few novels have been written since about their experiences. Only four come to mind – Generals Die In Bed by Charles Harrison, All Else Is Folly, by Peregrine Acland, Why Stay We Here by George Godwin, and The Wars by Timothy Findley. But now we can read a new one that is probably the finest of the lot, The Sojourn, by prize-winning Ottawa author Alan Cumyn.
Already named as a Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year, The Sojourn follows the adventures of Ramsay Crome, a young private soldier from Victoria, BC, serving with the 7th Canadian Pioneers in the Ypres Salient in 1916. We follow him though mortal danger, constant shellfire, occasional black humour, memories of an idyllic Vancouver Island childhood, and his final anguished recognition that continuing to fight has become a matter of personal honour. The novel covers only a period of three weeks during the Great War, portraying Crome's experiences amid brutal warfare relieved by his 10-day sojourn from the battlefield, on leave in London.
Cumyn presents it all in a matter-of-fact way, using spare clear language whose understatedness emphasizes the horrors it depicts. He writes his story in the present tense, a style that gives a sort of rushing you-are-there immediacy to the narrative. The author obviously did his homework about the vile conditions in the trenches. He describes "The fields of France and Belgium, where all the trees are shattered stumps, and the air is choked with smoke and fire a million times blacker than London on its worst winter's day, and the stench of bodies makes the factory smell like apple blossoms, and the gas hangs low in trenches and turns them into swamps of death."
This nightmare is interrupted by notification of some home leave, which makes Crome look at himself and his comrades differently. "Just before I leave, a section of new recruits comes through for their showers. I know they're new because of how clean, bright-eyed, undamaged they look. They stand too straight, laugh too loud, take over the place as if it's their private party. How cocky and stupid they seem."
Within a few hours, Crome is whisked by train and Channel ferry from the hellish trenches to the peaceful gaiety of London. He is welcomed into the home of his aunt and uncle and their two flibberty-gibbet young daughters. His kindly aunt is squeamish about niceties, while his uncle is a blustering super-patriot, seemingly oblivious to the appalling daily casualties that eventually consumed 800,000 British lives. Crome is attracted to one of his cousins; an outspoken pacifist who cannot comprehend the front-line troops did not have the option of laying aside their weapons to negotiate peace.
'"The war is swallowing everything,' Margaret says to me.' "It's like a great omnivorous beast from which nothing is safe. It affects what we eat, what we talk about, what we dream at night, our first thoughts in the morning. I'm sick of it!"'
'"We'll win it," I say quietly, '"We're going to win it soon."'
A hot bath and breakfast of scrambled eggs seems miraculous, and he finds it hard to adapt to other simple comforts. His relatives take him out on merry sight-seeing tours, but the sudden contrast between the muddy trenches in Flanders and ordinary daily routine in London shocks Crome deeply. He finds it hard to comprehend the taken-for-granted lack of fear and casual enjoyments, bright lights, and music-halls. Even Zeppelin air-raids do not seem to much dent Londoners' sense of security. Grateful as he is for his family's kindness, he finds their home-front attitudes to be stifling and alien. Comrades had told him how London was "a public brothel" with easy women available everywhere. Yet he finds no interest in pursuing them, and deals with an unexpected sexual offer only with embarrassment.
On his last day's leave, Crome arises early, somehow compelled to return to the dreaded front without delay. There, he is plunged again into brutal combat, scenes vividly told with still greater intensity. Alan Cumyn's The Sojourn is a uniquely splendid novel that enables us to grasp the enormous void of perception of war experiences that can never be bridged between soldier and civilian.

Victoria author Sidney Allinson is Branch Chairman of
Pacific Coast Branch, The Western Front Association.

No comments: