January 1917: five French soldiers are marched to their own front lines where they will be tossed out into no man's land with their hands tied behind their backs and left for the Germans to shoot. They were, in civilian life, variously a pimp, a mechanic, a farmer, a carpenter, and a fisherman; now they are condemned because each had sought to leave the war by shooting himself in the hand. Taken to a godforsaken trench nicknamed Bingo Crépuscule, the five are reluctantly sent out into the darkness; days later, five bodies are recovered and the families are notified, merely, that the men died in the line of duty.
August 1919: Mathilde Donnay receives a letter from a dying man. In it, the former soldier tells her that he met her beloved fiancé, the fisherman Manech, shortly before he died. Mathilde goes to meet Sergeant Daniel Esperanza at his hospital and there hears the story of the execution. She also receives a package with a photograph of the men and copies of their last letters. As Mathilde reads and rereads the letters and goes over Esperanza's tale, she begins to suspect that perhaps the story didn't end quite so neatly. And so begins her very long investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of five condemned prisoners--one of whom, at least, might not really be dead.
In Mathilde Donnay, Sebastien Japrisot has created one of the most compelling and delightful heroines in modern fiction. Though confined to a wheelchair since childhood, "Mathilde has other lives, varied and quite beautiful ones." She paints, cares for her pets, enjoys a rich fantasy life, and is relentless in her search for the truth about Manech's death. But she is by no means the only vibrant personality leaping off Japrisot's pages. This author has a remarkable ability to draw even minor characters in three dimensions with economy and wit. Take Mathilde's mother, for instance, caught in mid-card game: "At bridge, manille, bezique, Mama is a dirty rotten swine. Not only is she an ace with the pasteboards, but she throws her opponents off their mettle by insulting or making fun of them." And even the characters we meet only through other people's memories--the condemned men--are so fully realized that you find yourself torn over which one you hope may have survived. As Mathilde comes ever closer to solving the mystery of what happened at Bingo Crépuscule that January morning in 1917, Sebastien Japrisot proves himself a master storyteller and A Very Long Engagement a near perfect novel. --Alix Wilber [via]