The Year of Thamar’s Book by Lucy Beckett, Gracewing, 520pp, £20
In this ambitious novel of 500 pages Lucy Beckett, whose previous work has been set in the Reformation period and in East Germany before and after the last war, has chosen another unusual setting: France and the Algerian War as the French engaged in a protracted war of attrition against a North African colony that dared to want to be free.
The novel focuses on the handwritten memoirs of an elderly man, Thamar, scarred by the war both emotionally and physically and living out his final years in the Burgundian countryside. It brings him into contact with a grandson, Bernard, an intelligent, sensitive student raised in a rigorously secular French milieu, whom he had never known and who agrees, at first hesitantly and then determinedly, to bring order to his manuscript. As with all Beckett’s novels, it is less concerned with plot and action so much as how people are shaped by suffering and the meaning of the spiritual pilgrimage they are forced by suffering to undergo.
Her central themes raise the question: is Christianity true? If so, what is the nature of the gift and how can one come to embrace it? As Thamar comments to Bernard, with whom he forms a moving and affectionate bond in the year before his death, “It’s always possible to turn away from darkness and towards light. And at the same time it’s always impossible for anyone else to know what happens inside someone else’s soul.”
For Bernard, who had “never met an intellectually impressive person who was a Christian”, his grandfather’s gentle and quiet air of authority becomes decisive in his own intellectual and spiritual development.
The writings of St Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Charles de Foucauld and Albert Camus inform the conversations between the two, as the older man shares his memories of war, a doomed romantic passion and his long loneliness with his grandson, who is torn between his growing recognition that “people have souls, not just brains” and that his education in a French lycée in Paris had been barren with regard to what really matters in life.