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Listening to the Silence

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The Owl Killers
Karen Maitland
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown
Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Her Privates We - Frederic Manning

Every so often a book comes along that defines a generation in a certain time and place. This is just one of those books. Her Privates We tells the story of the ordinary men fighting for Britain in the trenches at Somme in the summer and fall of 1916. The language and events described are raw and unflinching. They are not the idealized, separate world of the officer corp, but the war as it was, filled with filth and muck, anger and apathy. 


We are told this story through the third person narrative of a soldier identified only as Bourne. He is a little different from the rest of the men, clearly of a different class. It is evident in his age, his manners, his speech, and his education. It is clear to not only to the fighting men, but also the officers who both resent and respect him. He is told repeatedly to go in for an officer's commission, something which he tries to avoid but eventually accepts as his duty.


There are times when this book moves slowly. This can be hard on some readers, but I think it was intentional and used to show what war was like. It was filled with waiting, endless drilling and parades, and when they moved to the front, it was quick and violent, over almost before you knew what had happened, only to be replaced with more of the interminable waiting. 


Bourne is modeled on the author himself and the book is loosely based on his own experiences. He wrote this book at the urging of a friend in 1929, when it was published anonymously under the name The Middle Parts of Fortune. At the time of publication it was considered vulgar and had to be edited and an expurgated version was released the following year, the original version all but disappearing until 1977. 


This book was quite popular among leading literary figures and other personages of the time. Included among them are Lawrence of Arabia, who counted it among his favorites, and Ernest Hemingway who described it as "the finest and noblest book of war among men." I am inclined to agree with that sentiment.