A bumper crop of books to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War has started to fill our bookshops. These two novels are among the first fictional fruits and they set a high standard. Elizabeth Speller takes the more traditional approach. A powerful storyteller, she follows the individual trajectories of four young men, one French, three English, from 1913 until her climactic drama in 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
Her characters hail from contrasting backgrounds. Fifteen-year-old Jean-Baptiste has been raised in a village on the banks of the Somme, the river whose name means ‘tranquillity’. We’re offered lush descriptions of the varied and beautiful landscape, its woods, fields and farmhouses. Jean-Baptiste dreams of commandeering a boat and navigating the