Sixty-four thousand Canadian servicemen were killed during the First World War, mostly while fighting along the Western Front in
Already named as a Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year, The Sojourn follows the adventures of Ramsay Crome, a young private soldier from
Cumyn presents it all in a matter-of-fact way, using spare clear language whose understatedness emphasizes the horrors it depicts. He writes his story in the present tense, a style that gives a sort of rushing you-are-there immediacy to the narrative. The author obviously did his homework about the vile conditions in the trenches. He describes "The fields of France and Belgium, where all the trees are shattered stumps, and the air is choked with smoke and fire a million times blacker than London on its worst winter's day, and the stench of bodies makes the factory smell like apple blossoms, and the gas hangs low in trenches and turns them into swamps of death."
This nightmare is interrupted by notification of some home leave, which makes Crome look at himself and his comrades differently. "Just before I leave, a section of new recruits comes through for their showers. I know they're new because of how clean, bright-eyed, undamaged they look. They stand too straight, laugh too loud, take over the place as if it's their private party. How cocky and stupid they seem."
Within a few hours, Crome is whisked by train and Channel ferry from the hellish trenches to the peaceful gaiety of
'"The war is swallowing everything,' Margaret says to me.' "It's like a great omnivorous beast from which nothing is safe. It affects what we eat, what we talk about, what we dream at night, our first thoughts in the morning. I'm sick of it!"'
'"We'll win it," I say quietly, '"We're going to win it soon."'
A hot bath and breakfast of scrambled eggs seems miraculous, and he finds it hard to adapt to other simple comforts. His relatives take him out on merry sight-seeing tours, but the sudden contrast between the muddy trenches in
On his last day's leave, Crome arises early, somehow compelled to return to the dreaded front without delay. There, he is plunged again into brutal combat, scenes vividly told with still greater intensity. Alan Cumyn's The Sojourn is a uniquely splendid novel that enables us to grasp the enormous void of perception of war experiences that can never be bridged between soldier and civilian.