War and Turpentine is separated into three parts: the first about Urbain's childhood and family; the second recounts his experiences during World War I; the third focuses on his life after the war.
The writing is elegant, if a bit too alliterative at times, but quite beautiful are the author's descriptions of his great-grandparents' love and the tenderness with which great-grandmother Celine treats her husband, Franciscus, despite their poverty, cramped quarters, five children, and Franciscus's fragile health. Hertmans presents his grandfather's impoverished childhood in terms that show how the beautiful, the ugly, and the mundane intertwined to create the man Urbain would grow to be. Hertmans captures the great love Urbain had for his mother, Celine, and the tenderness of her love toward both her husband and her son.
Before he was even old enough to shave, Urbain had already seen a great deal of the painful side of life. He was barely a teenager when he witnessed a horrific accident at an iron smith/mechanic's shop, and, as was the custom at the time, nobody talked about what happened; everyone kept to himself while things and people fell apart. Urbain also spent time working in a foundry at the age of thirteen, and the reader can feel the intense heat of liquid metal and see young Urbain's muscles tremble as he struggles to steady the basin of molten iron.
I was also particularly moved by a scene from the Great War, describing animals swimming across a river in a flood during a lull between battles, "fleeing an unimaginable Armageddon . . . fleeing blindly like lemmings." One can only begin to imagine how tempting it must have been to want to flee with them, to swim away to a distant shore, to a place where one can look in any given direction and not see insurmountable death and destruction. Urbain describes war as being "like the wrath of God, minus God." Powerful and poignant.
My only real point of contention with the novel is that I felt the author's presence more than I wanted to. At times, images and sounds flowed over me in cascades; at other times, I was only too aware of the author's presence. Outside of that, I really enjoyed reading War and Turpentine and found the prose both fluid-like and soothing, even when describing some of the darkest moments of Urbain's difficult life.
I received access to the galley for free through the First to Read program, but all opinions are MY OWN.