I have been reading and enjoying a raft of literature in translation lately. I was thrilled to receive an ARC of this book that was originally written and published in Dutch in 2008. This version has been translated into English by Paul Vincent.
Helena is a very old woman who has outlived all of her friends, acquaintances and relatives. She is homebound and needs round-the-clock care which is provided by a kind young woman named Rachida. We get the feeling that Helena is waiting for death which she feels is imminent and while she waits she writes down the memories of her life, especially those that revolve around the period of World War I.
Helena’s father is Belgian and her mother is French, so she grows up living between these two countries. She spends the summers in her mother’s family home in France, and when World War I breaks out Helena is forced to wait out the war with her mother, brother, uncle and aunts in their French countryside home. Helena’s father is left back in Belgium and the family suffers this long separation.
The main characters in Helena’s memoir are her mother, brother and husband. She has an uneasy relationship with all three. Throughout her life Helena feels that, as a young woman growing up in a European bourgeois family, she is deprived of many freedoms. Her mother, who still wears the stiff corsets of the 19th century and is always acutely aware of the gossip from the neighbors, will not let Helena wander out of their home unaccompanied. Helena resents her mother for keeping her prisoner under these strict, and what she views as, old-fashioned mores.
Helena loves her brother Edgar and is very close to him yet she is jealous of the freedom he is allowed. As a stark contrast to Helena, he can walk through the city streets at his leisure, have countless affairs, and travel off to war. When Edgar is wounded during the Great War, he is finally sent home and Helena listens in horror to his vivid details of trench warfare. One of the aspects of this book that is most impressive is the writer’s ability to graphically describe the tragedies of the war suffered by everyone who witnessed it; sounds, colors, textures, smells, and ruined landscapes are all described in order to capture the scale and destruction of The Great War.
When Helene marries a British soldier named Matthew who has a penchant for wandering and being on the open road, she admires his sense of adventure and his freedom. But it is his wanderlust that keeps her separated from him for long periods of time. When they have a child together, a daughter, I was surprised that Helena’s relationship with her was just a contentious as Helena’s relationship with her own mother.
The language and prose of the book feels disintegrated, as Helena jumps from one period of time to the next. It is almost as if we are looking through an album of old photographs with Helena and she tells us stories of her life as they pop up in her mind. She oftentimes goes on tangents as one story will remind her of another which she will launch into. I think some readers will find this writing style confusing and disruptive, but it is appropriate for the setting of the book. Helena is a very old woman, reflecting back on a long life and as images and narratives randomly appear in her memory she writes them down for us to read.
I have read quite a few historical fiction novels set during World War I this past year and WHILE THE GODS WERE SLEEPING is among the best for capturing the emotions, heartache, lasting effects of this war.
About The Author:
Erwin Mortier is a Dutch-language Belgian author. Spending his youth in Hansbeke, he later moved to nearby Ghent, where he became city poet (2005-2006).He wrote as a columnist for newspapers like De Morgen and has published several novels including Marcel, My Fellow Skin, Shutter Speed, and While the Gods Were Sleeping.