Today I am delighted to share my review for A. M. Brussel’s WWI novel Alone at War. While I normally lean towards WWII fiction, this one hit me in the heartstrings and simply wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, real, and sure to please lovers of historical fiction and war fiction alike.
Title: Alone at War
Author: A. M. Brussel
Publisher: Gatekeeper Press
Publication Date: December 16, 2017
Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction WWI Fiction
Themes: Family, WWI, Survival, Discrimination, Trench Warfare
My Rating: 4/ 5
Sara, a religious fourteen-year old Jewish girl, is orphaned in a small town on the Western Front in 1914, and is left alone to take care of her nine-year-old sister. They live above a cafe and the ex-prostitutes who work there become their new family. She feigns madness after abuse, and struggles to maintain her sanity and the religious values of her sister during the First World War. Together with a Jewish medic who she idealizes and comes to love, she befriends a young volunteer who is traumatized by battle and is found barking like a dog on a train station bench. Thoroughly researched, Alone at War depicts the struggle to maintain spiritual integrity during one of the darkest epochs of European history.
This book ain’t pretty, it isn’t clean cut, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. But guess what? It’s utterly fantastic.
This is the kind of gritty, visceral read that leaves little room for doubt when it comes the realities of war. Given the anti-Semitic focus it could have easily been set in WWII, but in taking it back to WWI and the trenches near Passchendaele everything slows down. The challenges for all parties become painfully clear – for the families of those left behind, for the soldiers in the trenches, and for the officers trying to make do with undertrained men and too few resources. But more anything else, it depicts the polarized depths of humanity and the lengths that people will go through to maintain their convictions in the most trying of circumstances.
While there is a central group of characters the majority of Alone at War revolves around, and is told through the eyes of, a the young and devoutly religious Sara. I found her to be a highly sympathetic character, especially since she not only had to grow up fast after the loss of her parents but also managed to maintain an innocence and naivety that can be too easily lost in the face of conflict. I loved how her dedication to her sister never wained, even when Anna begin to reject both Sara and their religion, and how Sara’s generous heart found room for the all of the other traumatized and ostracized souls she encountered along the way.
It seemed fitting that she found employment and refuge at both the chateau and the hospital, as both places provided a sort of refuge for those in need of healing. In each location we get to see a different side to her character, and with every chapter we get to see her grow as her eyes are opened wider and wider to the atrocities of the war. I understood completely her choice to appear mentally unstable and unattractive to the soldiers, however I did question as to whether or not that would have been enough to prevent assaults for two whole years as war causes desperate men to take desperate measures. While the topics of prostitution and rape were addressed through Alice, I was left with the feeling that it didn’t quite receive as much attention as it should have. But, this is also a love story and given that Isaac spends all of his time on the front rescuing others it was refreshing that he didn’t have to rescue Sara as well.
Isaac, or the Jew as he’s referred to throughout the book, is another character that I instantly loved. As a Hacksaw Ridge style conscientious objector, idealist, and constant support it seemed only fitting that he would be the man that caught Sara’s eye. The care and effort that he put into protecting Henry, combing no-man’s land for survivors, and to visiting all of his patients when off the front made him a compassionate and easy to like fellow. I respected how he at first refused Sara’s advances, but treated the situation with a wholistic approach that saw beyond the war and their immediate circumstances. It was because of all of this that his final actions left me absolutely aghast – and because of them I ended up respecting him even more.
And despite Antoinette’s prickly exterior, she was another one that I found myself drawn too. Sure, she’s crass, she talks too much, and she was truly out of her depth when she took the girls in, but she was another character that put on an incredible display of integrity. Despite the frequent protests that she wasn’t a mother, she was perhaps the most maternal figure presented throughout the entire book. There are so many who would have taken advantage of the sisters and the young women working in the chateau, but Antoinette goes out of her way to ensure that these women don’t have to debase themselves in order to survive. She’s unpredictable, taciturn, and constantly self deprecating but at the end I felt that she was more courageous and heroic than many of the men shown fighting in the trenches.
Finally, the writing itself is absolutely exquisite. Brussel presents an emotive blend of imagery and historical fact that creates a tapestry so expertly woven that it’s difficult to determine where history ends and fiction begins. The characters are not only believable but also relatable, the mood is expertly set, and there is no shying away from the cruel atrocities that war provokes. I could feel the constant dampness and frustration that pervaded the trenches, the blistering of gas blowing back after improper deployment, and the despair that must have been experienced when shell shock was initially denied. I cried (often) and I had to put the book down and walk away because it was too overwhelming, but I couldn’t leave it unfinished. Despite the dark and almost awful nature of the story it was one that commanded competition.
Would I recommend this book? I think you already know the answer to that! It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s absolutely worth the read. Just don’t go in expecting a tidy and uplifting romance, Alone at War is for more gritty and much more real. Get out your tissues baby, this one will make you ugly cry.
Many thanks to A. M. Brussel and Gatekeeper Press for providing an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!