A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf

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A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Nikki Thompson
Reviewed by Nikki Thompson
Summary: The story of the Great War told by the people who lived it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 308 Date: July 2014
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0-09-195422-2

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Sebastian Faulks and Dr Hope Wolf have expertly brought together this far-reaching collection of memories, diaries, letters and postcards written during and after the First World War. While Faulks is the author of novels such as Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, Dr Hope Wolf is a research fellow in English at the University of Cambridge, whose doctoral research focused on archives at the Imperial War Museum. The combination of such a respected author, whose most famous (and arguably his best) novel is set in the First World War, and an academic whose expertise is the in the same area, means that this fascinating collection hits all the right notes. It's commemorative, poignant and very human.

From simple letters sent home to family members from a soldier asking for more razor blades - a soldier who five days later would be dead - to accounts of astonishing bravery that, if they were written as fiction would beggar belief, there is a lot in this collection to be enthralled by. There are extracts here from famous authors such as D H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf but, as Faulks confirms in the introduction to the book, both he and Dr Wolf have made a conscious effort to include excerpts and letters from unknown writers as well. With that in mind there are plenty of entries from soldiers and nurses, but there are also writings from pacifists and conscientious objectors to the war, which bring a new dimension to a collection like this. However, like reading someone’s journals or private love letters after their death, at times I felt a little discomfited reading some of these extracts. The people who wrote these stark letters of love and loss and horror likely never intended for them to be made public and that sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading.

Similarly, there is also a section towards the end of the book that focuses on a public request made by the National War Museum in 1917 for relatives of those who had died in action to send details and photographs of their loved ones for a commemorative publication. The responses they received from mourning parents and siblings are so poignant and sad that they actually become very difficult to read. However, clichéd as it may be, there is a sense that you owe it to these people, both those who have died and those who are mourning, to read their stories.

All inclusions are fascinating and moving and yet it's difficult to say that I 'liked' this book. It is without doubt a worthwhile project and one that is fascinating from both a human and a historical point of view. It's carefully collated and edited, it's well researched – taking in accounts from all over the world - and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in the war, or in 20th century history in general. The context of the letters is hard to ignore, and it therefore provides an insight not only into the war itself but also into the time in which it was fought.

As it turns out, it is also not a book that is easily put down. I picked it up thinking to read a few pages and was over halfway through the book by the end of the evening. While the subject matter does not make for easy reading, letters and diary extracts are among the most engaging things to read thanks to their feeling of familiarity, and therefore a book like this is not hard to get through in a relatively short amount of time. This book feels deeply personal and full of secrets and private thoughts, and that ultimately makes for very compelling reading.

For another demonstration of Faulks' ability to bring human stories together (albeit fictional stories this time) try A Week in December.

Buy A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg A Broken World: Letters, diaries and memories of the Great War by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf is in the Top Ten History Books of 2014.

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