War may be a fairly recent invention, in the long arc of human history. Surely during the first hundreds of thousands of years our ancestors roamed the face of the planet hunting and gathering, there must have been personal quarrels in Freud’s primal horde, even acts of extended-family violence driven by hunger, madness, rage or fear. But our irredeemably odd collective practice of taking young men, tormenting them until they lose much of their empathy and sending them out in organized gangs to butcher strangers: That’s relatively new.
At least since Homer, though, warriors have often come home from battle full of vile memory and self-justifying or self-lacerating stories, far too often driven over the edge into a final collapse by what they have witnessed and what they have done. But by the time Virgil first sang of “arms and the man,” the tradition of turning those inchoate memories into shapely art had become well established. The world’s bookshelves and libraries are well stocked with what Christopher Logue calls “war music.”
William Kowalski’s The Hundred Hearts is part of that tradition, a strong, multigenerational study of a family full of war casualties, both direct and indirect.
The victims, who are, as is always the case in mature fiction, both victims and perpetrators, include an American grandfather and grandson both marked for life by their war experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and the women in their lives.
Kowalski’s searing novel is an account that manages to be a portrayal, both pitilessly accurate and strangely tender, of the toll of battle on soldiers and their families, and on the civilians in the strange lands where both American men were sent to add up what Wellington called “the butcher’s bill” of battle.
The author, an American-born novelist who now lives in Nova Scotia, writes believable, tragically flawed characters, from Al and Jeremy, the returned warriors, to Helen, Al’s long-suffering wife, whose death at the beginning of the novel changes everything for her family, and kicks the book’s action into gear.
But in admiring the complex and nuanced psychological realism of Kowalski characters, as, by and large I do, I should also note that the author sometimes wanders into a narrative realm that borders on kitsch or sentimentality in describing death and the afterlife.
And Al’s sensibility, rendered in a skillfully executed free indirect style, is, while often persuasively crippled, angry and misogynist, implausibly self aware.
So, this is a book with a few identifiable flaws and many impressive achievements, a well-written and moving meditation on family, war, guilt and secrets.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver, where he moved in 1967 as an alternative to attending the Vietnam War.