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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.