Jo Baker's "A Country Road, a Tree" belongs to a still-growing subgenre of fiction: the World War II novel. I read one just before beginning this book, Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See." Both novels are sensitive, well written, with great compassion for their characters. It's just that, I wonder, half-ashamed of my presumption, do we need so many of them? There have been other wars since then — the Korean War, and Vietnam, to name the most wrenching — but they haven't generated novels in great numbers. Why is that? Perhaps because in World War II the United States was the heroic good guy (at least overseas) without the ambiguities and gray zones that have bedeviled us since.
Baker's novel features Samuel Beckett and James Joyce as the main characters, and I am mystified as to why. Their work is only mentioned, and has no role to play in the events here. The only reason I can think of is that Baker wants to show us that great men suffer in bad times just like the rest of us. War is the leveler of all distinctions.
It has no use for drama, either. The war begins while Beckett is visiting home in Ireland, the radio announcement no more important than his mother's insistence that he eat something.
At war's end, Beckett's companion Suzanne "wipes her eyes with a flank of a hand. She sniffs. She shakes her head, and turns, and goes back to her garden. And that is it." Beckett notes dumbly, "I am wearing dungarees, Hitler is dead, and the war is over."
The book demonstrates, in impeccable detail, that even war can become the stuff of daily life, a routine, albeit slightly altered in that it now includes keeping a safe shelter and finding one's daily food.
People betray each other but also extend generosity. Everyone is in need, so "human bodies share the almost nothing that they have, and go on living."
There is no plot to speak of, beyond the tribulations of war and its daily tedium. The book simply follows Beckett and Suzanne from place to place, first in Paris, then to various cities in the south of France. He tries to find work and, recruited by the Resistance, sends clandestine messages to London about German troop movements. They meet old friends only to find out later that they've been arrested. They board with helpful strangers and then move on.
The book follows them into the war's aftermath, just as dreary and bone-wearying, if free of human danger. It is Baker's way of emphasizing the continuity of life, in all its unheroic and unjoyful carrying on.
Beckett enters a church like a foreign country. He marvels at people's stubborn insistence "that everything means something, that happenstance will be made to fit a pattern."
What he's learned is that the universe is perfectly indifferent to what anyone does.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.