Title: War & Turpentine
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Genre: Memoir, Historical, Biography
Setting: Pre and Post WWI Belgium.
Source: ARC from First to Read in exchange for my honest review.
Release Date: Aug 9, 2016
The life of Urbain Martien—artist, soldier, survivor of World War I—lies contained in two notebooks he left behind when he died in 1981. His grandson, a writer, retells his story, the notebooks giving him the impetus to imagine his way into the locked chambers of Urbain’s memory. He vividly recounts a whole life: Urbain as the child of a lowly church painter, retouching his father’s work; dodging death in a foundry; fighting in the war that altered the course of history; marrying the sister of the woman he truly loved; haunted by an ever-present reminder of the artist he had hoped to be and the soldier he was forced to become. Wrestling with this story, Urbain’s grandson straddles past and present, searching for a way to understand his own part in both. As artfully rendered as a Renaissance fresco, War and Turpentine paints an extraordinary portrait of one man’s life and reveals how that life echoed down through the generations.
(With black-and-white illustrations throughout.)
This novel is a big ol’ WOW from me. Using his grandfather’s written memoirs, historical facts, stories from family, and his grandfather’s paintings, Hertmans recreates his grandfather’s life and in doing so, attempts to find his own place in his family’s history. We learn of Urbain’s early childhood, growing up poor in Ghent, and what leads him to become a soldier in the first World War. We follow Urbain through the utter horrors of the war, to falling in love, and finally marriage and settling down. Hertmans’ technique is nothing less than masterful. He deftly switches between telling his grandfather’s story in his own voice to having Urbain live his story during the war and throughout the entire telling, it reads like a novel. It draws you into the story of this seemingly ordinary man who is, in actuality, a complex, talented, romantic, war hero.
This is the first novel I’ve read, to my knowledge, that has been translated to English. The lyrical prose, the poetic descriptions, they are so brilliantly written that you can see the war-torn countryside, smell the nightmares of the trenches, and feel the heartache and loss experienced by Urbain. I have to wonder how much of that is McKay and how much is Hertmans or does it translate perfectly?
War & Turpentine will be released in its translated English on August 9, 2016. Do yourself a favor and preorder it.