Patty: What I liked about Alan Cumyn’s The Sojourn (McClelland and Stewart) is the way he thrusts us into a muddy trench in the middle of World War I, where the narrator is carrying a load of something called iron pig’s tails on his shoulders and his buddy behind him is wrestling with two sheets of corrugated iron. A few pages on, we figure out that these soldiers’ job is to repair trenches while shells explode around them and all they have is each other. After a good dose of filth, fatigue, death and dismemberment, the main character, a Canadian soldier named Ramsay Crome, takes a short train trip to London for ten days leave; there he wallows in the luxury of a hot bath and clean sheets. Ramsay’s thoughts are understandably muddled by the contrast between the horror of the front and the unreality of ordinary life just a short distance away, where people have the time and energy to argue about whether England should be fighting at all, and his confusion intensifies when his father offers to use his influence to get Ramsay transferred away from the front. All of Ramsay’s buddies are back there, and why should he avoid it just because his family has friends in high places? I’m still wondering what pig’s tails are, but this snapshot of war has stayed with me in a way that a more sweeping work might not.
Kris: The First World War has offered inspiration for countless literary works and, because some of them are among the most powerful novels ever written, I found it difficult to accept The Sojourn as the literary masterpiece many critics have claimed it to be. When young Crome leaves the muddy, bloody mayhem of the trenches for a leave in civilized London, perhaps he can find some personal peace and perspective on the meaning of the war and his place in it. His encounters with his pacifist cousin Margaret are a highlight of the story, but not as provocative and tender as they need to be. The descriptions of trench warfare pale beside those in classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Parade’s End, and the icy calm of English society, the eye of the storm, is simplistic and uninspiring when compared to Timothy Findley’s Wars. Perhaps it is because other authors have succeeded so well in expressing the utter devastation of World War I that this novel left me cold.