A French corporal once described it as a rubbish dump of shredded clothing, smashed weapons, bones and putrescent flesh. That was the front in the Great War, the one to end them all, so apocalytpic in the nature and number of its casualties mere force of words could not contain it, though Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon among the poets tried. At its best, Findley’s novel is a shattering, uncanny recapturing of the original decency and terror of the war poets. His hero is an officer of sensibility, just as they were, who goes mad with the rest of the world at the carnage he is forced to endure. At the Somme on July 1, 1916, for example, 21,000 British dead, 35,000 wounded. Findley makes a point of telling his readers that. Ironically, it is this historical scholarship in The Wars that jars. Findley’s literary device, that this is the Seventies and we are researchers trying to mine the trenches through yellowing photographs and cumulative statistics, is clichéd, bland and in the way. At the heart of the fiction, at the centre of the images is the young officer, who defiantly asserts his humanity through a mad love for animals. He tears off his insignia and, in a Swiftian, Gulliverian reversal, identifies with horses and runs away with them from the war. Findley, whose previous novels include The Last Of The Crazy People and The Butterfly Plague, should have trusted the outraged poetry and hyperbole of his protagonist more and his own need to couch an explanation for them less. MARILYN POWELL
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