Almost a year ago I had the pleasure of reading Kate Williams’ biography of Josephine Bonaparte. At the time, I called it a perfect biography so blown away was I by the scope of detail and the pace of the book. Biographies can be overtaken by too much explanation, distracting from the aim of telling the story of a life but Ambition and Desire was not that kind of biography.
I picked up The Storms of War on a whim a few weeks back. You are all familiar by now with my inability to stop collecting books even though I have stacks of them unread at home. The Storms of War was in a bookstore, I read the synopsis, thought it sounded good and I bought it.
Then I found that I had a little bit of World War I fatigue – I had read a couple of novels set in that time that fell flat for me and I wondered if maybe I had hit my peak for reading about the time. I didn’t even realize that the same Kate Williams that wrote Ambition and Desire wrote this book until I was in the middle of reading it.
The Storms of War is the story of the de Witt family. Father Rudolph is German born but has made piles of money packaging meat and has been able to buy a family home in the country, Stoneythorpe, and considers himself an English gentleman. Oldest son Arthur is in Paris, doing God knows what, son Michael is studying at Cambridge, Emmeline is engaged to marry Sir Hugh, an arrogant gas bag if ever there was one, and youngest child Celia longs to run away to Paris and write books. When the war comes, everything changes for the family. Because he is German born, Rudolph must register as an alien and surrender his cars. Eventually he is taken away from the family and incarcerated. Michael runs away with one of the servants to serve as soon as war breaks out. But he isn’t naturally brave and struggles with his new reality. Emmeline’s fiance balks at marrying a German and is never heard from again and Emmeline is cut loose, without any other prospects. Meanwhile Celia is left to deal with her mother who is increasingly depressed, spending days locked in her room, refusing to eat.
I wasn’t completely sure about this book for at least 100 pages. I just couldn’t see where all of this was going, especially since this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy. I thought maybe it was another book going through the paces of telling a WWI story without actually telling much of a story. But eventually pieces started to fall into place and once Celia enlists to drive ambulances in France, I really got into it.
This is exactly the kind of book about World War I that I’ve been looking for. It showcases the bravery of the men and women who longed to serve their country, of those left behind to wonder what happened to those they had waved off to the front, of the sacrifices made by a nation and the dark undercurrent of distrust against those who had ‘infiltrated’ their country and could no longer be left to live their own lives. This book looks at the class system as it was and how the war broke all that down, to provide new opportunities that could only have been dreams before.
This 500 page book only told the de Witt family story from 1914 to 1918 and the trilogy promises the story to 1939. I’m excited to see where this goes and am definitely on the lookout for the next book.