Monday, August 11, 2008

book review - unconditional surrender

At the end of this trilogy you have several thoughts about the overall lessons that can be learnt from the experiences Evelyn Waugh’s characters have in the Second World War.

If there is an overall take-away from this final book in the Sword of Honour trilogy it has to be that war along with fate produce their own winners and losers. As the war enters its final phase there are several key characters that develop a sense of fatalism that is referred to by those around them as a death wish.

One of the first to get her wish granted is Guy’s ex-wife who is remarried to her former husband as he is the only one who will bring up the child she is expecting after her liaison with Trimmer. A V2 rocket does for both Guy’s ex-wife and Uncle.

Another character determined to die before the fighting stops is Colonel Ritchie-Hook who decides to try and storm a rebel outpost in Yugoslavia and receives a bullet in the head for the trouble.

But key among those that seem to have slipped into a state of taking whatever life throws at them – unconditional surrender – is the main character Guy. Churned through the system until he is eventually posted out to be a liaison officer with the rebels in Yugoslavia Guy loses heart as he starts to see the way that Jews are being treated by their liberators and how corrupt the post-war regime is going to be, displaying signs even in its infancy.

The results of his neutral attitude is not only to be widowed as his wife dies but to return to an England that he has mixed feelings about. He sells his property in Italy and remarries and in the final scene is seen to be one of the winners of the war.

As he meets his brother-in-law, who has since lost his seat in parliament in the great Attlee victory, he is referred to as lucky because of his marital happiness and the money he has received from relatives and the sale of property.

The irony is of course that Guy wished for none of those things and it was possibly because of that situation he was granted some of them when more competitive contemparies aimed high and lost out.

Over the course of the three books there is nothing gripping you making you read on and although Guy is a pleasant enough character his semi-strict Catholicism and background of relative luxury are things that do undermine your support for him.

But this is not so much a trilogy about one particular character or war story but of a time and a generation and social set that went to a war that often frustrated them, hadn’t got a place for them and ultimately tore some of them away from the positions of privilege they had enjoyed pre-1939.

The story is told with subtly and it is only in the last few pages you get the chance to make that conclusion and pull it together. As a result the second book feels a bit like treading water and the third takes a while to get to its conclusion.

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