Friday, January 23, 2015

☊ A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR by Mark Helprin (✮✮✮✮)

Certainly, this tome by Helprin is not for the faint of heart: the book is just shy of eight hundred pages and the audio clocks in at thirty-one hours.  Until the end of the book, I was not thinking it would earn more than three stars from me.  In the end, I had to acknowledge that despite its weaknesses, the book deserved more regard.

Helprin gives as our narrator a man in his seventies, who, having missed a bus, ends up taking a walk of some great distance through the countryside with a young man.  Along the way he shares wisdom, philosophical musings, and the biggest story of his life.  

Loving as I do great characterization, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Alessandro Giuliani and all the people from his very full life that his narration brought alive.  In light of his conversations, we come to know what life was like in Italy before, during, and after the First World War.  We learn how people thought, what they dreamed of, and what their struggles were.  Helprin’s marvelous gifts of description and depth of thought shine through Alessandro as the teller of his tale. 

However, at times the descriptive language goes, in my opinion, a bit overboard.  The author writes very expressively and has command of the subtle use of metaphor.  Unfortunately, he is also far too fond of similies, and they often jump glaringly out of the prose.  That is not to say that all of them are over-written (although I still groan at the description of a lady’s chin being likened to an opera house balcony—seriously?); some are lovely and apt, but the bad outweigh the good and there are just far too many.

The timeline of the book is crisp, and the format of beginning and ending the book when Alessandro and the young man are on the road walking makes for a smooth narrative.  Unfortunately, not all the intermediary transitions were as easy.  For instance, at one point Alessandro is seemingly at death’s door from a fever, and then, rather jarringly, he is suddenly in a museum admiring a painting.  At first I thought he must be in a fever induced delirium and flashing back, but no, the narrative really did make that leap.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not give a lot of the credit for how much I enjoyed this novel to the outstanding narration of David Colacci.  His reading infused every character with distinct personality, respected the author’s intent, and effectively carried me through both the active and more passive parts of the novel.


Weighing the good and the bad, I debated between three and a half and four stars and finally decided that the general fluidity of the writing and how arresting and contemplative it was deserved the higher rating.  While parts of the plot sped along, others dragged quite mightily, and to enjoy this novel you must be a reader of patience who enjoys a lot of introspection and observation in between the action.

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