David Jackel

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In Colours of War Cohen has attempted to deal, in too short a space, with too many serious issues. Of the various questions—philosophical, historical, political, religious, familial and sexual—which the novel raises, none receives consistently effective treatment; the questions themselves are not trivial or uninteresting, but they require more sustained and careful consideration than Cohen has chosen to give them. Such consideration is certainly not encouraged by the form of the book, which is an uneasy blend of realism and fantasy, narrated by a young man whose observations are an unpredictable combination of superficiality and insight…. No doubt Cohen intended that his narrator's difficulties and confusions, together with the novel's disconcerting mixture of the mundane and the surreal, would work to engage the reader more directly with the materials of the story and prevent the kinds of stock responses customarily made to political fiction. But the reader thus engaged will experience problems with most aspects of this novel, to say nothing of the problems involved in making these aspects cohere….

The complicated story might have held together, despite its multiple plot interests, if Theodore Beam had been a more interesting character and a more articulate narrator. His developing understanding of his father is perhaps the most successful part of the novel; and we can also see that Theodore has moved towards a greater self-awareness and a better understanding of what one must do to survive with integrity in a world which seems to be collapsing. But his relationship with Lise, on the other hand, is not effectively presented. Sexual attraction brings them together, but what keeps them together is not clear. Nor is it sufficiently clear why Theodore drifts into revolutionary activity and then abandons it. As narrator he is no more consistently successful than as character. Although he claims to have found a "voice" in which he can tell his story, a voice appropriate to the story's significance, that voice is not always convincing. At times his language is simply careless … at other times it is imprecise….

Despite its serious intentions, its ambitious scope, and its occasionally successful moments, Colours of War shows that Matt Cohen is not yet sufficiently in control of his art. If this novel had been shorter, and more clearly focused, it would have been an effective account of a young man's coming to terms with himself and his age, or even an allegorical account of the development of the consciousness of a young Canadian writer. If longer, and more carefully structured, the novel could have been an important consideration of our possible future. But in attempting to be all these things the novel is not successful.

David Jackel, "An Abridged War and Peace," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVII, No. 677, December-January, 1977–78, p. 41.

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