A Very Long Engagement
By: Sebastien Japrisot
Format/Source: Paperback; my copy
During the First World War five French soldiers, accused of a cowardly attempt to evade duty, are bundled into no-man’s land and certain death. Five bodies are later recovered, the families are notified that the men died in the line of duty and the whole, distasteful incident appears closed. After the war the fiancee of one of the men receives a letter which hints at what might have happened. Mathilde Donnay determines to discover the fate of her beloved amid the carnage of battle.
I must’ve mentioned the story on how I got my hands on this book a few times but suffice to say it took a while, lol. I loved the movie adaptation of this novel starring Audrey Tautou, Marion Cotillard and Gaspard Ulliel (loved it, by the way), it had many elements that I enjoyed in a novel/film: set during a war period somewhere in Europe, an engaging mystery, a scathing look at the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of bureaucracy, a love story overcoming many challenges. If I didn’t love the movie enough, it’s also one of my favourite novels.
I never wrote a review for this novel the first time around but decided to re-read it as part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in. Figured it was a good time to re-visit this novel ^_~
I love how there’s so much going on in this novel. It’s more than just a simple tale of a fiancee in search for the truth behind what happened to her fiance at the frontlines during the First World War. Like the film, it’s a mystery where the reader tries to piece together events along with Mathilde about what happened that day out at Bingo Crépuscule through accounts and letters from a myriad of characters involved (soldiers, family members, etc.). It can be pretty crazy at times and more complex as some far-out characters who seem to be uninvolved with the events end up playing a role but I think that’s part of the intrigue with the story. The pacing of the story felt realistic, complete with its dead ends and breaks after a period of time.
I think my re-read of this novel this time around made me more aware of the underlying commentary that Japrisot had about the French bureaucracy surrounding the First World War. There was a great issue concerning desertion and self-mutilation as an attempt to leave the front was judged very harshly, as events of this novel showed. But then there’s the way that the government handled these proceedings after the war, covering it up and cutting people off from finding out what really happened during the war, which left many apathetic towards the government and some to retaliate. It’s sad and it’s Mathilde’s determination that keeps her asking, keeps her pushing, even without the government’s help and even without the help of those in the upper classes who do not see her investigation as helpful for anyone.
I’ve always marvelled how it takes more than halfway through the novel before Japrisot rewards the reader with the backstory of Mathilde and Manech’s relationship. I always thought it was pretty neat how he did that, it was a nice break considering what happened prior to that flashback. It’s so sweet and beautiful how their relationship developed and how determined Mathilde is after the war ended to find out what happened to Manech. The movie I think brought the romance a bit more to the fore but the heart of the novel is ultimately Mathilde’s search to find out what happened to Manech during that last year of the war.
At the same time, Mathilde beyond her relationship to Manech is very well developed, I love how she has this wry sense of the world; she doesn’t take things too seriously and yet there’s this sense of understanding of the world that has left her perhaps a little jaded too. She has such a vivid imagination (which the movie brought out) and she doesn’t allow her affliction leave her helpless. She’s perhaps a little odd for the society of the time with the things she says but she’s always true to herself and I find that admirable in the character.
I also love the writing. This can easily be a heavy read with all of these themes and all of the twists and turns in the plot but Japrisot has a very quirky narrative style, presenting information about Mathilde and her life in an interesting and whimiscal manner. Even when Mathilde’s life is falling apart and everything is just bleak and sad, there’s a strange beauty to that sadness that shows through his narrative.
Here’s an example of how, in just a few sentences, Japrisot manages to convey a whole slew of different emotions: beauty, grief, determination, hope, a morbid sense of humour/finality/depending on how you want to interpret that:
Mathilde has seized hold of [the wire]. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned. When it breaks, she ties the frayed ends together. She never loses heart. The more time passes, the greater her confidence grows, and her determination as well.
And Mathilde has a cheerful disposition, too. She tells herself that if this wire doesn’t lead her back to her lover, that’s all right, she can always use it to hang herself.
There’s just something about his prose that lingers long after you’ve read it…
A Very Long Engagement is a beautiful, intriguing and intense read. It obviously fleshes out the characters and the story a bit more than the movie adaptation was able to but it overall it’s really quite an entertaining read with all of its complexities. There aren’t very many books out there I’ve encountered so far that manages to cover all these different genres and layers so fluidly.