Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ – Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front, written by German veteran and author Erich Maria Remarque, and published in 1929, has been described as the definitive novel of the First World War. It follows Paul, a nineteen-year-old German soldier fighting in France and is a haunting novel. Not only was it a gripping read, but the novel was also beautifully written. I would recommend this book to anybody, as an exploration not only of war, but of youth, friendship and survival.

All-Quiet-on-the-Western-Front-Novel-e1311707538832Paul, along with the other boys from his class at school, was encouraged by their schoolteacher to join the war effort and become heroes. Throughout the course of the novel, Paul describes the battles that they fight, the losses their group experiences, the new soldiers that he meets and forms friendships with and other events that befall him during his time on the Western Front.

Unlike other war novels, the battles and events are not given a historical context. We do not know what years the events and battles are taking place in, we rarely know where the soldiers are stationed, and in between chapters and events, it is not clear how much, if any, time has passed between them. I liked this aspect to the book, as there was a real focus on Paul and his psychological journey through the war rather than his physical one. Very few times are we walked through Paul’s actions on the battlefield, and are more likely to be given an insight into his thoughts. However, when we did see him in battle, it was gripping and tense. The whole way through the novel, despite the chronology and time being ambiguous, I felt tense and really gripped by the story. The way that the story is told, in such a freely-flowing manner, means that you never know what will happen; whether a battle will end quickly with no significant events or whether tragedy will strike. Some battles lasted whole chapters and some were over within a few paragraphs.

erich-maria-remarque-1898-1970-german-everettAnother aspect of the novel that I liked was that all of the characters were written in such a realistic way. The dialogue was completely believable and I could really imagine a group of young men having the conversations. One of the things that struck me the most when reading the novel was the fleeting nature of Paul’s relationships with the other soldiers – they enjoy a great comradeship, but at the same time, when one falls in battle or is sent away, he is quickly put out of mind. However, even if their friendships are not ‘normal’, the characters still felt well-developed. They all have their own characteristics, whether it be Kat who has a gift for finding needed objects, whether it be food or clothing, or Albert who questions the War, every character brings something new to the story, even if they are only present for a short while. I also felt like every scene between the characters touched on an important, or at least moving, issue, whether it is the scene where the soldiers risk their lives in a barrage of shooting to make themselves a luxurious dinner, or discuss what their plans are for after the war.

Overall, I would agree with the statement that All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war novels. Of the novels that I have read about the First World War, this has definitely moved me more than most and it is a book that I can imagine going back to and reading again in the future.

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Book Reviews, Contemporary

Review – ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ – Karen Joy Fowler

weareall

I read the novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in one day. I just didn’t want to put it down. Part of me was attracted to the book by its success, both commercially and critically. Another part of me was drawn in for far more superficial reasons; its beautiful cover art and intriguing title. Yet though the story was mysterious and kept me hooked, when I finished it I felt dissatisfied with the way it had panned out.

KarenJoyFowler
Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler’s book follows Rosemary Cooke, who doesn’t like to talk about her family. When the book starts, she hasn’t seen her brother in almost a decade and her sister in an even longer time. She slowly tells us her story, and that of her family and her secrets begin to unravel. Although the book is incredibly slow-paced – the major revelation of the story happens around the page 80 mark, and later eventful parts of the plot don’t happen until right near the end – this doesn’t feel so bad because of the way it is told. Rosemary starts ‘at the middle’, then goes back to the end of the beginning, then forward to the beginning of the end, and right at the end of the book, we are treated to the beginning and end of her story. However, even this ‘ending’ did not feel complete, and it felt like the writer had got bored, and just stuck an ‘ending’ into the book, explaining everything half-heartedly and quickly so that they didn’t have to continue.

Another complaint that I have of the book is that the second half of the book in particular felt like a propaganda pamphlet. Without giving too much of the story away, a major theme of the book is animal testing and cruelty. What I didn’t like was that this theme wasn’t presented as truly imbedded into the storyline. Instead it felt thrust upon the reader, along with facts, stories, news clippings and scientific theories. Rather than giving the reader the space to think about the topics in the book and question them, the book grabs to by the arm and forcefully drags you to its conclusion within the space of a few paragraphs. Although I do believe that art should make us face things we subconsciously avoid, and withholding aspects of the story until halfway through when the reader is already hooked is perhaps the only way to get readers to listen to your point, I would rather be given the chance to piece things together rather than be forced.

The book's full cover art
The book’s full cover art

On a positive note, I found this novel easy to read and the mystery surrounding the story kept me reading in a search for answers. Rosemary’s perspective was interesting and I think Fowler did a good job at making her narration believable. Particularly, the way we questioned Rosemary’s memories, especially in the second half of the book, and learned things along with Rosemary was done especially well as it felt like we couldn’t fully trust any of the characters.

Overall, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a book that, although I did enjoy reading, did not reach my expectations. So much of the last few chapters of the book felt like an ‘info dump’ and the ending itself felt too superficial. All the time I was reading the book I was waiting for an explosive ending, or at least something equally big to the big reveal at the beginning of the book to happen later, but unfortunately it never came.