The Verdun Affair
Overview - A sweeping, romantic, and profoundly moving novel, set in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and Los Angeles in the 1950s, about a lonely young man, a beautiful widow, and the amnesiac soldier whose puzzling case binds them together even as it tears them apart. Read more...
More About The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek
A sweeping, romantic, and profoundly moving novel, set in Europe in the aftermath of World War I and Los Angeles in the 1950s, about a lonely young man, a beautiful widow, and the amnesiac soldier whose puzzling case binds them together even as it tears them apart.
In 1920, two young Americans meet in Verdun, the city in France where one of the most devastating battles of the war was waged. Tom is an orphan from Chicago, a former ambulance driver now gathering bones from the battlefield; Sarah is an expatriate from Boston searching for the husband who wandered off from his division and hasn't been seen since. Quickly, the two fall into a complicated affair against the ghostly backdrop of the ruined city. Months later, Sarah and Tom meet again at the psychiatric ward of an Italian hospital, drawn there by the appearance of a mysterious patient the doctors call Douglas Fairbanks (after the silent film actor)--a shell-shocked soldier with no memory of who he is. At the hospital, Tom and Sarah are joined by Paul, an Austrian journalist with his own interest in the amnesiac.
Each is keeping a secret; each has been shaken by the horrors of war. Decades later, Tom, now a successful screenwriter, encounters Paul by chance in LA, still grappling with the questions raised by this gorgeous and incisive novel: How to begin again after unfathomable trauma? How to love after so much loss? And who, in the end, was Douglas Fairbanks?
From the bone-strewn fields of Verdun to the bombed-out cafes of Paris, from the riot-torn streets of Bologna to the riotous parties of 1950s Hollywood, The Verdun Affair
is a riveting tale of romance, grief, and the far-reaching consequences of a single lie.
Love and memory, marred by war
Nick Dybek’s haunting, vividly cinematic tale is set in rural France after the horrific World War I battle at Verdun, where almost a million men died. Each of Dybek’s three central characters has a tie to the site of the carnage—beginning in 1921 with Tom Combs, a young American ambulance driver working for the church, collecting remains from the battlefield to be placed in a huge ossuary, which will eventually hold the remnants of 130,000 French and German soldiers. Tom diligently carries out his macabre assignment, even as he ponders how to tell those searching for their missing loved ones that “the shelling was so incessant during the battle that a man’s remains might be buried and unburied and blown a mile into the distance and buried again?” Hundreds of bones are found every day, “mangled and unmatched.”
It is there that Sarah Hagen comes, searching for her husband, Lee, who was in the American Field Service and went missing in 1918. Perhaps to ease her evident stress from a long and fruitless search, Tom tells her he met Lee in Aix-les-Bains while Lee was on leave. Tom and Sarah begin an intense yet brief affair—she is immersed in grief, and Tom feels guilty over his lie. She leaves Verdun to continue her quest, and Tom moves on to a job as a journalist in Paris.
Dybek’s story then moves from Verdun to Bologna, where a year later Sarah and Tom meet again—both drawn by reports of an amnesiac patient in a mental hospital who may be Lee Hagen. There they encounter Dybek’s third enigmatic character, Paul Weyerhauser, an Austrian journalist who has his own wartime backstory—and a reason for questioning the amnesiac.
The narrative leaps forward to Los Angeles in the 1950s, where Tom and Paul meet unexpectedly at a funeral. Each has his memories of Sarah and their time together in Italy—memories viewed through different lenses and clouded by time. Dybek’s poignant tale of the harsh realities of war juxtaposed with a dreamlike love story will linger with readers in the same manner as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.