The main action of this powerful war novel—Robert Ross’s initiation into adulthood through confrontation with death, violence, love, and sexuality—is preceded by a brilliantly constructed frame which engages the reader’s interest and establishes the objectivity and credibility of the first-person narrator, who is either a historian or a biographer. The frame is also thematically linked to the main plot as another aspect of the difficulty of the search for truth about any man at any time. The first section of part 1, “Prologue,” presents a remarkably memorable image of Ross at the devastated front lines, about to commit the error of benevolence against which the preceding epigraph warns. This scene is repeated verbatim in part 5, section 11; only then will the reader grasp the motives, consequences, and meanings of the event.
This structure gives the novel a quality of resonance and reverberation, for to understand the scene fully is to understand one major theme of the novel. The scene also secures the reader’s interest in Ross and his sympathy for the narrator’s search for the truth about this man among the archives of letters, documents, and photographs of the scholar-athlete and his loving, wealthy family, of Ross during basic training, and one of him in flames astride a black horse, so vividly described that it burns itself into the reader’s mind. Then the narrator inserts part of a transcript of an interview with the nurse who cared for Ross after the flames; she will also return at the conclusion of the novel to illuminate her comments here. Then the novel jumps back to Ross, on his way to join the Canadian forces to fight the war to end all wars, and a quick flashback to the events that lead to his decision.
From that point until the end, apart from the narrator’s remarks concerning the nurse and Lady Juliet d’Orsey’s diaries, the action is relatively conventional and sequential in order, covering primarily the action of one year, 1915-1916, when Ross was nineteen and twenty. The narrator’s concern for and repetition of precise and sharp details, facts, and dates and his inclusion of a few historically true individuals are absolutely convincing. This framework is fascinating, but, more important, it is essential in establishing and keeping the serious realistic tone of a story centered on a seemingly ordinary youth who commits a bizarre, almost unbelievable act which is labeled by some as insane, by others as treasonous. It is the narrator’s and reader’s task to understand the act in order to understand this man and, thereby, all the men who have ever fought in the wars.
Robert Ross, at nineteen, does not understand how to deal with death, violence, or women....
(The entire section is 1116 words.)