THE ENGLISHMAN’S DAUGHTER: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War I, By Ben Macintyre, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 254 pp., $24
Some readers, myself included, prefer to hear history told story by story, without the framework of grand theory. I am referring to a sort of ecosystem history, in which the various players, their lives and motivations are pieced together in the same way a biologist might reconstruct a habitat. This is history laid brick by brick, moment by moment, haphazard, unfolding. “The Perfect Storm” is a popular example of this kind of history-telling. It requires an enormous amount of footwork and listening and a level of personal commitment from the writer that is nothing short of formidable.
Ben Macintyre, a writer for the London Times’ bureau in Paris, was asked to cover a ceremony commemorating four British soldiers shot by the Germans in the village of Villaret in Picardy in 1917. Nine Englishmen, cut off from the retreating British army, were hidden by the villagers. One, the handsome Robert Digby, fell in love with the great beauty of the village, Claire Dessenne. They had a child, Helene (the Englishman’s Daughter), whom Macintyre met at the ceremony. Helene was 6 months old when her father was shot with three of his compatriots, betrayed by a jealous woman in a nearby village. Before his death, Digby gave Claire a letter of introduction for his mother in England: “I have a child I love very much,” he wrote of Helene. “The whole village respects us both. Do not think ill of her after my death.”
Everything comes alive in this story: the village feuds, the village characters such as the postman Poette, the hunger of the winter of 1914. It becomes more and more difficult to hate the Germans billeted in the town, despite the terror and destruction they cause (11/2 million Frenchmen were killed, leaving 600,000 widows). Villaret was crushed and slowly rebuilt. Macintyre, identifying with Digby, makes it his mission to find the woman who betrayed Digby and the other Englishmen. It is a gripping, illuminating story. Fiction’s greatest lie has always been the romance of war.
MY HAPPY LIFE, By Lydia Millet, Henry Holt: 150 pp., $20
“My Happy Life” is a novel of dark imaginings, the life story of an orphan, found in a shoebox as a newborn and given, instead of life, the worst that human nature has to offer. Every kind of abuse, from sexual to emotional, is heaped on her by wardens at the orphanage, by savage foster families, by cruel employers and perverted lovers, one of whom gets her pregnant. The child is taken from her, her body is tortured, she is humiliated beyond believability and still, her soul flies up. She is compassionate, nurturing, hopeful and trusting to the end. Suffused with goodness, she writes this memoir from the cell in which she has been abandoned, forgotten, left. She speaks directly, disconcertingly to the reader. “He would never cease wanting,” she writes of the bully who beat her so mercilessly when she was a child in the orphanage, “and he would never cease trying. Because of that I loved him.” In times of great pain, she falls into a reverie of strange inky images: “the tongues of seaweed curling on my arms and slick black eels flicking and swimming through the holes in me.” We are in the realm of impossibility in this novel, this fable, but the wisdom, the survival techniques of this strange saint ring like psalms: “My sadness has never hurt me too badly. That is, if I let it wash over me, I feel newly clean after a while.” Millet holds the line between simpleton and saint, straining credulity even as she paints a hopeful picture of human nature.
LIMBO, AND OTHER PLACES I HAVE LIVED: Stories, By Lily Tuck, HarperCollins: 192 pp., $23.95
These stories, set in Vietnam, Thailand, France, Morocco and Nevada, are spare and fastidious; their details echo like high heels clicking on an empty street. Lily Tuck writes with too much control for my taste, but she is someone to watch. Like Ellen Gilchrist’s in the last generation, her stories and novels are crisp, always moving: single-lens stories. Her narrators, such as the woman awaiting a divorce at a ranch in Nevada in “Verdi,” often seem fogged in, not in control, moved by Tuck through the motions of a life they do not understand. They find themselves with men in faraway countries, expatriates, not understanding how they got there, not understanding the language or the cultures and not understanding the things (like speed or slavery or death) that thrill and even sexually excite their men. I find this combination of ingredients--out-of-control men, disoriented women, carefully controlled writing--to be off-putting. There is an echo, a rumor of purpose in these lives, but her characters fall to pieces like skeletons on the verge of dust.