War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, trans. by David Mckay

This historical novel told in two voices explores war and family with sensitivity and grace.

war and turpentine

Stefan Hertmans’s War & Turpentine is a superlative novel of war, love, family and discovery.

Urbain Martien was a painter and a soldier, devout and devoted to his family. Late in life, he painstakingly handwrote two volumes of memoir: one of a “practically medieval” childhood in the 19th century, and one of serving in World War I. His unnamed grandson waited more than 30 years to open these notebooks. Parts of War & Turpentine are narrated by that grandson, a writer now in midlife, in which he recounts his own memories of Urbain and his war stories, integrating what he learns from the journals. The novel then shifts to the battlefields and to the voice of Urbain himself.

This Flemish family story explores the difficulties of class and culture in early-20th-century Europe. Urbain portrays his father, who labored in poverty as an undersung restorer of church paintings and frescoes, and the mother he adored. His grandson discovers in the memoirs a love found and lost during the war. Urbain’s battle-ravaged world is populated by family, romance and a passion for art–and as the title suggests, by the tension between two halves of a life. This is a story of seeking the truth of one’s ancestors, a past that can never be fully known. “Maybe his silence says more than enough about his life as it was then.”

Hertmans’s writing, and David McKay’s translation from Dutch, is elegant and unadorned, intense and restrained. War & Turpentine is a world to get lost in, referencing a history both broad and personal.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scars.

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