cover image A Very Long Engagement

A Very Long Engagement

Sebastien Japrisot. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (327pp) ISBN 978-0-374-28335-3

After a court martial in January 1917, five Frenchmen convicted of self-mutilation (in order to avoid combat in WW I) are dragged along the network of zigzagging trenches to the improbably named frontline trench, ``Bingo Crepuscule.'' What exactly happened in Bingo is as labyrinthine as the trenches themselves, but Mathilde Donnay, the fiancee of one of the soldiers, is a determined young woman whose wheelchair is unable to contain her fiercely independent and willful spirit. Aided by an indulgent, well-to-do father, a generous private investigator, soldiers who survived the conflict and the families of those who didn't, Mathilde begins the long and spotty process of re-creating events. This 1991 Prix Interallie-winner is no linear mystery: over the course of several years, Mathilde must piece together redundancies, misremembered details and deliberately obscured clues, all further mangled by the chaos of war. Mathilde is not easy to love. If she is spunky and smart, she is also spoiled, making it sometimes hard to believe that so many people stumble over themselves to help her. Still, Japrisot's ( The Sleeping Car Murders ) eloquently easy, almost offhand style (nicely translated by Coverdale) makes even throwaway lines remarkable (``Fayolle actually spoke to him, saying a few unforgettable words he can't recall at the moment''), and his re-creation of the nobility, futility and horror of trench warfare is harshly beautiful. (Aug.)