30 day book challenge – day 23 – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months.
This is a tough one to answer as I have read some great books within the last 12 months, but the one that really stands out for me is Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford.
Set over a decade around the First World War, Parade’s End is the story of Christopher Tietjens – a man who belongs in the 18th century and struggles to reconcile himself with the modern, changing world. Tietjens is married to the beautiful but cruel Sylvia, when he meets Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette, with whom he is constantly linked. When war breaks out, Tietjens is forced to re-address everything that he believes in.
This is not an easy read. I knew within the first couple of pages that I was going to struggle with it and that Ford’s very unique style was going to take some getting used to. There were times when I thought I would never get to the end, and times when I wanted to give up. It is hard to get used to the jumps in time in the story – there will be huge leaps forward and you will have to fill in the blanks in between from what is said in the present of the story. That can be unsettling and it is a challenge.
I persevered and I’m so glad I did, because this is not only the best book I have read in the last 12 months, it is one of my all time favourites.
It’s difficult for me to put into words what it is that makes this such a brilliant read, but I will give it a go. Firstly, it is the characters. Tietjens is so strict and regimented in his belief systems and he has such an unshakeable self-control. He does not care what people think about him at all. He is hopelessly mismatched with Sylvia, who is modern and fun loving and incredible passionate, for all that she is cruel. She needs someone to be passionately, hopelessly in love with her and doting on her every word. She does not have that with Tietjens – he is the epitome of a reserved English country gentleman, and marriage has nothing to do with passion. The book begins with Sylvia asking for Tietjens to take her back after she has run away with another man. Tietjens doesn’t believe that a man should divorce a woman and has scrupulously ensured that no hint of scandal has attached to his wife’s name. But he takes her back in such a businesslike manner that Sylvia takes every opportunity to be cruel to him just to provoke him and to try to make him drop his facade.
Then there is Valentine Wannop. She has had a tough life – from being brought up by her father to be well educated and to speak Latin as well as she does English, she is forced to take any work she can (including as a main, a secretary and a teacher) when her father dies to support her mother. She is also a suffragette, and that, along with the hardships she has faced would suggest that she should be quite a hard character – she is obviously a survivor. But she is not. She is very soft and gentle and kind. Sylvia in contrast had always had every privilege, and so you would expect her to be a soft character, but she is not – she is passionate, yes, but she is cold and cruel.
The relationships between Tietjens and Sylvia and Tietjens and Valentine are exquisitely drawn. The whole way through I was debating does Sylvia actually love Tietjens, and will Tietjens ever be able to act on his love for Valentine or will his principles stand in the way?
Although set around and hugely influenced by World War One, this book isn’t really a typical book about the war – it is about Tietjens. The war provides the catalyst for change within Tietjens by which he re-evaluates what it is that he stands for; but this works both ways and the change in Tietjens is representative of the sweeping social change triggered by the war. However, for anyone interested in this book for the War alone, those parts of the book really are excellent and realistically depict the total chaos for the troops on the ground, the terror of the shelling and the snipers, and the near impossible strain that this places on a man.
If anyone is thinking about reading this book, my advice is do it. If anyone is reading it and thinking about giving up, my advice is persevere. It will be worth it. It is one of those books that I couldn’t stop thinking about after I had put it down, and I immediately wanted to pick it straight up again to look for all of the little things that I might have missed the first time around.
I would also highly recommend the BBC TV adaptation – it ends earlier than the book does, and it skims over parts of it (such as Tietjens complicated relationship with his brother Mark), however it is a really well written and well acted adaptation.