Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘Testament of Youth’ – Vera Brittain

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Vera Brittain while serving as a V.A.D. nurse

Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoirs, Testament of Youth, focus mainly on the years 1914-1925. The book effectively covers three parts of Brittain’s life as a young woman; the years just before the War, the years during, and the years just after, especially her time as a V.A.D. nurse during the war, as a student at Oxford University, and the beginnings of her career as a writer and journalist.

EACIMRIn 1914 Vera, frustrated with life in her village and goes to Oxford with dreams of being a writer. However, this coincides with the start of the War, and her brother and friends, including her future fiancé all enlist. At Oxford, she also grows frustrated. She postpones her studies and enlists as a volunteer nurse, a role that sees her serving in England, Malta and France. She tells of her struggles in nursing and her personal battles with friendship and love against the backdrop of a War that causes death and destruction all around. However, despite her personal tragedies, we see Vera carve out a career for herself in politics, journalism and writing after the War. The book ends almost ten years to the day that she first enlisted as a nurse with her vowing to look forward to the future and ensure that the victims of the War did not die in vain.

Many of the letters in the book are between Vera and her brother Edward, seen here in 1915
Many of the letters in the book are between Vera and her brother Edward, seen here in 1915

Much of the book is told in the form of extracts from Vera’s diaries and letters she exchanged with friends and family. Although the Vera who was writing her memoirs in the 1930s wrote with an almost professional detachment at times, these extracts of diaries and letters made the book feel more personal. It was the little details like how she felt vibrations while working in London when large battles were occurring in France, and the fact that winters were so cold that their clothes were covered in a thin sheet of ice in the mornings that made me feel like I was experiencing it all with her. They also showed the effect of the War on her and the people around her, and the generation as a whole, better than anything else probably could. We see the growing cynicism of her friends who are serving, coupled with the way that they almost long for a death in War which contrasts greatly when compared to Vera’s later diaries where she criticises the idea that their ‘victory’ was a victory at all. Although at times, Vera Brittain’s objective approach sometimes made the book feel cold and perhaps more like a history book rather than an autobiography, these diaries and letters made up for it and are often emotive enough to move you to tears.

Vera Brittain (third from the left) while in Malta as a nurse.
Vera Brittain (third from the left) while in Malta as a nurse.

Testament of Youth also deals with various social and historical topics – the War itself and Brittain’s descriptions of her time as a nurse, the things that she saw, her experiences and those of the people around her are not only gripping but also informative. A woman’s perspective of the war tells us a lot about the home front; the fear felt at home, the men who were eager to fight but could not get enlisted due to their jobs or health, and those who like her brother had successfully enlisted but were initially kept at home. She also wrote of how the experience of working personally changed her and her ambitions. By 1924, after almost a decade of studying and working, she could barely contemplate the dream she had of being a wife and mother as being a possibility. The most inspiring part of the book in my opinion was the part of Vera’s memoirs set after the War when she began a career in journalism and politics, lecturing for the League of Nations and travelling to understand the impact of war. Her writings on pacifism and the war towards the end of the book were the most moving parts of the entire book as they showed the lessons that she had learned. Far from being a book restricted to discussions of the First World War, Vera’s writings on peace, politics, class, education and women are still relevant in our society today.

Overall, I would recommend Testament of Youth to readers for its interesting perspective into the life of young people during such a tumultuous time in recent history. Apart from the gripping and emotional ‘story’ side of reading the memoirs, many of the issues discussed and debated by Brittain are still incredibly relevant today.

 

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Book Reviews, Contemporary

Review – ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ – Mohsin Hamid

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I read this absolutely fascinating book in a day, and was captivated not only by the story but by the writing as well. It is written in a poetic and romantic way, whilst all the while addressing very current and controversial topics in a very human way.

The story takes place in a single afternoon in a café in Lahore, and we follow the conversation between two strangers. One is a Pakistani man called Changez and the other is an unnamed American. Changez tells the story of how he became, that’s right, a fundamentalist. He is currently a professor who is frequently accused of inciting fundamentalist beliefs in his students, but he has come a long way from his time in America, where he studied at Princeton and worked as a financial analyst at one of the best consultancy firms. He tells of how he loved America and felt so strongly attached to New York, where he lived, that he was ashamed of his native Pakistan. However his life and philosophy is turned upside down by the 9/11 attacks, and he finds himself lost in America, which seems to have turned his back on him. He returns to Lahore where he meets the unnamed American, and the book comes to a climatic and mysterious ending.

Reluctant_FundamentalistMy favourite thing about this book was the marvellous way that it was written. I have never read a book written in a similar stream of consciousness, monologue fashion that flows so well. In fact, despite the poetic nature of the narrative, the sentences never felt convoluted, and not a single word felt out of place. I thought it was astounding how the whole book is told through Changez’s speech – we never hear from anybody else, only what Changez replies. The opening paragraph is a perfect example of the writing style of the book: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” Hamid also managed to effortlessly switch between Changez telling his life story to Changez talking to the American in front of him, and to capture both a sense of reading a first-person narrative and also reading a person’s transcribed speech.

I was rather surprised that the actual events of the novel were not more dramatic, however I was pleased. It was quite a refreshing take on a topic that is addressed so differently in the mainstream media, and looked at the human story behind the sensationalised topic and Hamid does not shy away from showing ‘un-American’ views through his characters. The book is still ambiguous though; Changez is articulate, incredibly friendly, welcoming and generous to the America. Instead of being some sort of monster, he is a professor, who advocates non-violent forms of protest and supports the sovereignty of his country. One of his students has turned to a more violent method and so Changez is in the limelight, but is he really to blame? What made the book even more striking was the ambiguous ending, where it is not clear whether Changez is being hunted for his views or whether Changez really is the sinister figure that the book’s title would suggest that he is.

Mohsin-HamidI was also intrigued by the way in which every aspect of Changez’s life had a symbolic role in his development as a character. His employers’ motto of focusing on fundamentals seemed like a joke at times, and I actually did smile at the irony a few times. I was also interested in Changez’s relationship with Erica and his relationship with America, and Erica as a symbol of America. Particularly, I thought the description of America and Erica as living in a world of the past was fascinating, and what seemed to be, when I began reading, a simple story about a man’s radicalisation, turned out to be a complex analysis of America, and his relationship with it.

I think that The Reluctant Fundamentalist deserves far more than this simple 700-word review, and maybe something more along the lines of an essay with a word count of far over a few thousand. It was a truly mesmerising read, both in terms of the issues addressed and the style of writing that Hamid adopted. At times it felt like I was listening to a particularly articulate speaker and at others as if I was listening to a poetry recital. I would recommend this book to everyone – and have already started!