Happy Friday, readers! You’ve now made it through two weeks of 2019! I hope everyone is transitioning back to their work/school/normal life routines smoothly, or enjoying extra time relaxing if things haven’t started back up for you yet. I am excited to share my first review for 2019, so let’s get into it!
Title: The Blue Bench
Author: Paul Marriner
Genre: Historical Fiction (late 1910s to 1920 mostly, with a bit in 1940 as well)
Synopsis: The Great War is over but Britain is still to find peace and its spirit is not yet mended.
Edward and William have returned from the front as changed men. Together they have survived grotesque horrors and remain haunted by memories of comrades who did not come home. The summer season in Margate is a chance for them to rebuild their lives and reconcile the past.
Evelyn and Catherine are young women ready to live to live life to the full. Their independence has been hard won and, with little knowledge of the cost of their freedom, they are ready to face new challenges side by side.
Can they define their own future and open their hearts to the prospect of finding love?
Will the summer of 1920 be a turning point for these new friends and the country?
I really wanted to like this book. It’s deep-hitting historical fiction with a philosophical bent, so how could I not? There certainly are aspects of The Blue Bench that I enjoyed, and others that I appreciated even though I did not enjoy actually reading them, but as a whole…the negatives outweighed the positives for me.
Let’s start with the good: The Blue Bench takes a long, hard look at the time between WWI and WWII. I’ve read an abundance of WWII fiction, but very little WWI fiction and even less from the years in between, so I was eager to learn. I did learn a bit about the culture and atmosphere of the time, and I really like how so many veterans are portrayed in different ways. A vast array of physical and psychological wounds are displayed, some directly and others subtly, as well as a variety of responses to returning to civilian life. People from this era are sometimes called “the lost generation,” and I believe the author integrated many of the historical and cultural aspects which made this moniker appropriate. There is a pervasive longing for meaning, uncertainty about the way of the world, and almost subconscious self-doubt hanging over the Western world which also plays out in many of the characters. The characters really are fascinating, from the obviously scarred Edward to the inconsolable Alastair to the loquacious Beatrice, each is unique and mysterious. Also, there were mentions of Hemingway as an outrageous American author, which made me smile.
Now for the not-so-good: Ultimately, this book finds no answer for the meaning of anything. The pages are filled with futile attempts to find meaning in a job, relationship, or social status, but you don’t have to read many books to know that these things will never be enough. An example: there is a side plot where our protagonist, Edward, is always searching for the family of a man who served in his platoon and died while under his command. The search proceeds fruitlessly until a breakthrough finally leads Edward to their home. Unfortunately, Edward is pretty sick at this point and ends up not able to tell them anything. Instead, he sits and smokes with the man’s father, and they say nothing. This scene is like a microcosm of the entire book: they sit, doing something they think ought to be enjoyable but really they’re just passing time without learning anything or making any progress on anything of true substance. This likely was the reality for many people in this time, but doesn’t make for much of a book.
Furthermore, the frequency with which drugs, alcohol, smoking, and vulgarity show up on the pages is overwhelming. I’m sure it is intentionally placed: as the characters succumb to poor health and old injuries, they rely more on things which might numb the effects, but these substances become less and less effective, leading to an even greater indulgence. Additionally, as they explore this new post-war world and how it is changing, they question the standards they have been taught and begin to push the limits. I know that history must not be “cleaned up” for fiction, but some stories are more worth telling than others, and some aspects of a story are not necessary. As much as possible I am careful about what I allow into my mind, especially through any sort of entertainment, and the vulgarity and disinterest towards drug and alcohol use in this novel cross the line of what is acceptable. There is way too much detail, despite the fact that I found the romance side of the story to be lacking.
The Blue Bench truly is a mixed bag. I loved learning about the creation of the British Tomb of the Unknown Solier, and the writing is very good. However, the flagrant sexuality, over-reliance on unprescribed drugs and alcohol, and overhanging sense of worthlessness make it not worth it to me. If I could edit out these things and just pass along the core of the story with a more hopeful message (because there actually is a place to find meaning and a reason to have hope when the world is almost literally falling apart around you, even when you’re not sure if you have actually survived or not), I would be thrilled. But I can’t do that. So, I finish this review as I finished the book: with a heavy sigh, in part glad that I read the book but in part wishing I had not. The Blue Bench joins a short list of books which I appreciate for their historical and philosophical content, but largely did not enjoy and do not wish to recommend except in very particular circumstances.
To learn more about The Blue Bench, check it out on Goodreads.
Until the next chapter,
*I received a complimentary copy of this book and happily provided my review. All opinions expressed are my own.*