Friday, March 11, 2016

Two Sons - Stewart Gill Owen

Summary: It's 1932 and Hitler and the Nazi Party are threatening to take control of Germany. There is a growing fear of another war. 

Two families from vastly different backgrounds make their way to visit their sons' war graves in the Flanders region of Belgium. John and Annie Williams are on their annual trip from England in memory of their son, Herbert, who had been killed while fighting at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Erich and Martina Lehmann have travelled from Germany to pay their respects to the memory of their son, Kurt who died in the same campaign. During their visit, the couples meet and in the wake of such devastation, confrontational events take place. 

'Two Sons' moves from the war on the western front to the domestic lives of both families over a period of two decades. Having lost their sons in one conflict, both families fear that they may have to make further sacrifices in light of the growing threat. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Two young men, both kind, both with promising futures, both fated to perish at Passchendaele, on opposing sides of the war.  Two families, fated to meet at their sons' resting place fifteen years later.  So many lives touched, so many lost.  Can reconciliation ever truly be achieved?

The premise of this book was so beautiful to me.  As far removed from World War I as we are, it's easy to break it down into Good Guys and Bad Guys.  The Good Guys won.  But, that doesn't mean the Bad Guys didn't have hearts, didn't feel their loss. And as one of the characters mentions, how would life have been different for the Good Guys if their ancestors hadn't left Germany?

Loss is something that transcends politics, race, religion, and family feuds.  Loss is one of those universal emotions able to bring together individuals in a way that nothing else quite can.  Unfortunately, this book falls short of its goal of showing that reconciliation, and sadly, it didn't have to.

On paper, this book should have worked.  The pieces were all there - two families trying to heal.  The "Bad Guy" family was kind, humble, willing to ask forgiveness and move forward, and the leader of the "Good Guys" family was good, but hurt, belligerent, and unready to forgive.  The characters moved forward as they were supposed to, it should have worked. 

But it didn't.

I'm a picky reader, and I'm a staunch believer that present tense is very, very tricky to pull off.  It's best reserved for books like The Hunger Games.  When in the right hands, it conveys the sense of urgency of the main characters, the uncertainty of what future, or if any future will be realized.  It takes a good writer and a better editor to execute it flawlessly.  If you can't execute it flawlessly, don't try.  Not only is this book written in present tense, it follows two different timelines, one after the titular sons have died.  There's no reason for the present tense ... they're dead.  The world knows how that war ended.  Personally, I believe the book would have been much stronger had the past chapters been written in past tense. 

 Second, the timeline jumps were tricky.  With very little to differentiate them from the present chapters, I got so confused I had to restart the chapters more than once.  Finally, the drinking.  Half the book is about drinking.  Not even a discussion that would lend itself to a story but mind-numbingly inane blather about who wants what to drink where and when, and then let's do it again!  I lost my temper with the book at that point, and had to force myself to finish.

Unfortunately, by this point in the book I was nitpicking for reasons to justify my frustration.  Spelling errors, continuity errors, basic historical mistakes that should have been caught simply spoiled this book for me.  I wish I could send it back and ask for a rewrite because the story truly could be beautiful. It just didn't live up to my expectation.

Rating: One star


For the Sensitive Reader: Numerous unnecessary and gratuitous uses of the F word.

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