Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux

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Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux

Category: Graphic Novels
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very low-key text from close to the French front line at the outset of World War One, vividly and intelligently illustrated for this all-ages graphic novel.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 96 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Phoenix Yard Books
ISBN: 9781907912399

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A scientist can tell a bit about an animal's nature just by observing the beginnings of its life ('it's in water, ergo it's probably a fish'). They don't need to study every ant in the colony to see how ants collaborate and work together, for the detail is pretty much shared from one ant to the next. So it is with soldiers, at least as far as this book is concerned. You can pick one soldier from all the battalions and learn something of soldierly life. You can see the nature of the war from what happens at the outset. And here all we get is the outset, for this graphic novel is based on a manuscript the artist found purely by chance, of a solitary soldier's diary that covers only a couple of weeks in 1914, and stops obliquely.

So it's of a soldier whose name we'll never know. We never will find out any more about the man he bunks up with often in companionship, a certain Fernand. What we do know is what happens and where and at what time of day – and the happenings are unglorified, unfictionalised, and a little hum-drum – a dawn march here, digging trenches there, and so on. You can tell they are kosher, as Michael Morpurgo's introduction suggests, from how low-key they read.

It's a little unfortunate then they are that low-key. Yes, things happen, so I won't give away what work as main plot points, but a lot of it is too much detail for the later personal recollection – a move towards that village we've never heard of, a stay in that village left off our British mental maps. As a snapshot it works, and there is emotion – especially in the need for letters and news from home – but it's not the best text in the world.

Our artist, however, Barroux, has grabbed it and run with it. There's a very successful live action, son-et-lumiere show of it in France, and there is this graphic novel, which shows this to-me unknown artist off very nicely. His pictures, on the whole placid portraits, or rustic scenes, have an earthy, rugged humbleness in their use of what looks like textured, black crayon and pencil. Like the text, nothing is dramatized too much, nor glamourised, yet nothing is debased and uglified as some artists would have it – except for one thing. Barroux has a thing about noses. They are all outlined on all three sides (top, bottom, and side join to the face) and look like everyone is trying out a chicken suit nose for size. But beyond that quirk he does excellent work – from the billets of the soldiers to the exploding artillery shells. One stand-out image – and in this calm, gentle illustration method there are on the whole just two panels per page – goes even further, with soldiers lined up in a pattern, some with exploded heads, some still with real-life forces photographs collaged on in defiant pose. And no, that's way before the soldiers see action.

So I really appreciated Barroux's work, and of course his find, but as horrid as it sounds in respect to a lost soldier, I didn't find the written side of the graphic novel that fabulous. It does open a window for us onto that world, but not in perhaps the best imaginable way, and I'm sorry to report that as a result this will perhaps get lost in the shelves of centenary publications WWI has provoked. The artistry is fine here, but for once we've picked the wrong ant.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

This could be filed next to Walter Tull's Scrapbook by Michaela Morgan, although both are quite different beasts.

Buy Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Line of Fire : Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux at Amazon.com.


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