Pushkin, £18.99. Order at £16.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier; Trans. Paul Vincent, book review

Redemption of war-torn memories

In 2009, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy wrote "Last Post", which re-casts First World War history as a newsreel film in reverse. The dead arise from the mud of the trenches to resume their foreshortened lives: "If poetry could truly tell it backwards,/ then it would."

Fiction too, perhaps: Erwin Mortier's beautifully unorthodox novel of the Great War lends his narrator Helena Demont a similar vision of ruin restored and grief rewound, as the blasted houses of Flanders "crawl out of the dust with wobbly knees, street after street". Language, and memory, reorder time and can seek to redeem history.

Although it boasts some almost Sebastian Faulks-like episodes of love, grace and tenderness snatched in the shadows of destruction, While the Gods Were Sleeping is no conventional narrative of life and death on the Western Front. It filters the 1914-18 war through the mind and words of the now-aged Helena. In threads and fragments, comforted by her Moroccan carer Rachida, she surveys her pre-1914 girlhood in cosy bourgeois Belgium and reimagines her mother's family farm just over the border in France – the site of summer vacations during those golden days, and a refuge after the German invasion in August 1914.

For Mortier, one of the most accomplished of Flemish writers now, the killing grounds sit right on his doorstep. This novel creates an uncanny – and unusual – sense of mass slaughter unfolding just around the corner of everyday existence. The life of farm and town goes on while, in corpse-strewn meadows, flowers bloom and butterflies flit "as if the earth were practising revenge".

Mortier eschews blow-by-blow chronology in favour of Helena's rich web of reminiscence. As a war novel, While the Gods Were Sleeping burns on a deliberately slow fuse. The opening 100 pages paint the sweet but humdrum languor of Helena's early years, a Belgian counterpart to our Edwardian twilight of middle-class comfort and complacency. Her dreamy love of language and stories collides with the brisk practicality of her mother, a homemaker who insists that "we can't hang about hanging about" and despairs of her daughter's destiny as someone who wants to "dawdle endlessly at the gate of infinity".

Reality for Helena always lies within. When the Great War plot begins in earnest, this sovereign subjectivity means that even traumatic incidents sink into her flow of consciousness. The conflict morphs into a succession of flash-lit snapshots. Matthew Herbert, the dapper and deadpan Englishman whom the adolescent Helena falls for and will later marry, is a semi-official photographer whose profession allows our young female narrator to witness not so much the heat of battle as the ghastly tableaux left in its aftermath. Helena's war develops as a series of bravura set-pieces: the death of little Amelie from a stray shell; the hospital ordeal of Helena's gay brother Edgard; the – distinctly Faulksian – stolen erotic bliss of the couple in the wrecked mansions of Ypres.

Always, as the old woman crams notebooks with this harvest of memory, Helena aspires, via her writing, "to squeeze my foot in the door of the definitive". Spurning the big, vague picture in its transit from one densely textured close-up to another, this novel does precisely that. Although "jealous of the painters" because their art revels in "intensity" not "meaning", Helena commands – thanks to Mortier's sumptuous verbal gifts – a kaleidoscopic palette. As translator from the Flemish, Paul Vincent makes every detail shine, and every colour blaze.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam