By Catherine Bathe
News of Our Loved Ones is a book about World War II – stop, it’s not the kind of World War II book that you’re probably thinking it is. Author Abigail DeWitt settles readers into various places during the war and then in America, after it. She jumps from character to character, providing a rich story and detailed characters without having to christen the book as “yet another Holocaust story”. No, DeWitt’s novel provides us with a point of view of some of the others: villagers in small French towns, daughters who move to Paris to study music, villagers who lived complicated lives before settling into the town of Caen, France – a town occupied by the Nazi Germans, a town directly in the path of the soon to be invading Allies and their bombers, a town that becomes a focal point for the memory of Genevieve, one of the characters that DeWitt narrates with and one of the only surviving members of the Delasalle family, whom readers spend the most time with as DeWitt’s story twists forwards and backwards through time.
We learn about the Delasalle family through the perspectives of their matriarch, Pauline, her two daughters, her sister, and Pauline’s granddaughter, Polly. The book moves out past these narrators to have nine different perspectives by the end of the book, but even these are tangentially related to the family at the center of heartbreaking narrative about war and how it ripples through time, touching people who exist long after the smoke has cleared. Although the narration does move around, DeWitt manages to keep each character engaging, giving all of her women their own voices and their own problems: young love, the inability to create a family, infidelity, leaving home when the future is uncertain, and the list continues on, with problems that fit each voice that weaves together for the overall narrative. That is probably my singularly favorite thing about this book: DeWitt manages to take these characters and place them on a dramatic background – it’s war, people – while staying totally true to the everyday nature of these problems.
These characters have lives, even while the air raid sirens are joining the crickets in an evening symphony. The war itself is at times an intimate villain that steals neighbors and family members, other times it’s a distant thought – something taken in through contraband radios from a safe distance, and other times it’s just another piece of the background: the sun shines on Yvonne’s balcony during the day while she waits to see the red-haired boy on the bicycle drive by and at night, the air raid sirens happen so often that their occurrence can barely be confirmed as being real or just being part of some dream.