Ottawa writer Clive Doucet was born a year after the end of the Second World War. But like many Canadians in his age group, he has an intense curiosity about the events that provided his father’s generation with the test and badge of its maturity. Doucet’s third novel, John Coe’s War, is an ambitious attempt to get inside the skin of a young man who grows up in the drowsy idyll of 1930s Toronto and is suddenly plunged into the most destructive war in the history of the world. Although Doucet’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, he has successfully created a complex and entertaining history of an innocent’s war experiences and the effect of the conflict on the rest of his life.
John Coe is a high school student who plays classical piano and lives with his schoolteacher father and domineering, straitlaced mother. The war is almost a blessing to Coe since it untracks him from the future that his mother has planned for him. She wants him to become a concert pianist, but the clarion of battle proves irresistible to a young man raised on the boy-scout heroics of Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. “There was never a better time to be in a military uniform than the fall of 1939,” he says. “In the neighborhood, my itchy brown private’s uniform made me an instant celebrity. Nor did I want to give it up. Coming home from militia camp was a very big deal.”
While Doucet notes the naïve optimism and excitement of Torontonians during the early months of the war, he does not really succeed in re-creating the ambience of a lost world. The period detail seems more accurately reconstructed than lovingly remembered.
In the war scenes, he combines thorough research, a certain predictable echoing of old novels and films and some impressive flights of imagination to credibly depict life in London during the Blitz and the Canadian campaigns in Sicily and Holland. The real hero of those passages is Geoff Haney, whose personality is toughened and eventually destroyed by the cruelties of war. Doucet’s portrait of the disintegration and death of the tragic young Adonis is superb: Haney’s story gives the war vignettes their greatest depth and resonance.
The war also transforms Coe. The once timid pianist becomes a popular, twice-decorated officer. But his war does not end with VE-day: demobilized,he returns to a society into which he never quite fits. The final two-thirds of the novel chronicles his struggle over the next 35 years to find himself as he wavers between high school teaching and his talent for jazz piano. Doucet portrays his confusion with refreshing candor, never bolstering Coe’s image with stereotyped male heroics. The veteran is a bumbler: more than once his handsome wife, Christina, must take the initiative in leading their family out of difficulty. Fortunately for him, Coe is humble and wise enough to follow her advice. In the end, he proves to be a man of rich, cantankerous character, a far more attractive individual than many of his more conventional friends.
The major disappointment of the novel is that Doucet races through too many of his scenes. He often fails to exploit their emotional potential but glosses over them with his speedy, journalistic prose, producing the impression of a breezy Cook’s tour of John Coe’s life. Ultimately, in its colorful summary of a lifetime’s events and in its evident passion for the struggle of an older generation, John Coe’s War is a good book. But it could have been better.
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