Book Review – War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

IMG_42645_star_rating_system_2_and_a_half_stars If you follow me on Instagram then you’ll be aware that last week I was lucky enough to see the stage version of the book War Horse. It was an absolutely amazing experience that I will never forget and one that left me an emotional wreck for days. I don’t understand it but the deaths of massive wooden puppets was super traumatic. As a huge literary nerd and a bit of a history geek too, World War 1 has always been somewhat fascinating for me so I’ve been interested in War Horse for a while. It wasn’t until I watched Steven Spielberg’s film in 2012 that I became familiar with the story and, if I’m honest, it left me feeling more than a little critical. As I suggested in my review, I felt sad that society could only become emotionally invested in the story of the Great War through the treatment of horses. I mean I’ve got nothing against horses but why do we need to make a film about a horse when loads of innocent, young men died as well? Human beings care more about animals at times than they do about strangers. It’s ridiculous. Going off topic for a second, I once heard a story (probably not true) about a charity that went around giving food to the pets of homeless people. Now I have nothing against this kind act on its own but the same people were (allegedly) only giving food to the animals. Now, I realise dogs that live on the street deserve food but what kind of fucked up person would not also give food to the owner? Anyway, I’ve had my misgivings about Michael Morpurgo’s story of a magical fucking horse since I laughed my way through Spielberg’s film but the stage show had me changing my mind. Maybe there was something there after all?

After finally reading the book that started this whole thing off, I have to admit that I still have misgivings about the premise of this book. However, I will concede that it was intended for a young audience and I can see we’d try to avoid a Saving Private Ryan style portrayal of the horrors of war. Michael Morpurgo was partly inspired to write a horse’s-eye-view of World War 1 after talking to three men who had been there. He wanted to show the horror and tragedy of the war as seen by a horse that had been taken from his rural home and placed in a cavalry unit in France. After being bought by a drunk farmer, Joey is taken to a farm in Devon where he is trained by the farmer’s young son, Albert. The pair become inseparable and Joey grows into a fine horse. Everything is looking blissful until war breaks out and Joey is sold to the army. From that point he experiences the war from both sides and finds himself dealing with loss, pain, and a longing to be back with Albert.

I had originally intended to finish reading War Horse before I went to see the theatre production but, thanks to Tin taking a little longer than I expected, I was only about halfway through by the time I saw it. I can’t say that by that point I was particularly enthralled by it but I left the theatre with a renewed vigour. I wanted to give this book a fair chance because, regardless of what I think about its approach, it’s trying to tell an important story. In the end I did find it more emotional than the film but that wasn’t really difficult. However, it did lack the emotional punch of the stage show. I don’t know whether it’s just the staging or everything unfolding before your eyes but it’s such an effective way of telling this story.

The book itself is simplistic and, as expected, plays down the violence. People die out of eye shot and there is a sense of detachment from the human casualties. Joey meets people and loves them but there is never any powerful feeling of sorrow when they die. I don’t know if I’m just desensitised to it all but I don’t think this book is as emotional or powerful as most people tend to think. Joey understands death and loss as a concept but never spends any real-time mourning. Once one of his owners has been dispatched the story moves on so quickly that you don’t really deal with the consequences. The structure of this book is too episodic to give the reader time to get to grips with death.

I also have to say that, even for a children’s book, the magical properties of this horse are irritating. I mean it understands human life in a very detailed way from a very early age. It’s crazy. I realise Joey was born in captivity but he seems to have more of an understanding of what’s going on than most of the humans. Also, are we supposed to believe that this horse can understand both English and German with the same amount of ease? I know that, really, it’s just a device to allow the plot to work but Joey understands everything uttered by the German and French people he meets. It’s the magic fucking horse thing all over again. Then there’s the convoluted happy ending that, I’m sorry to say, is super unrealistic. If Michael Morpurgo wanted to show the realities of war then he should have stuck to his guns. This book ends up being too twee and flowery.

It’s not that I hated this book and I can see how it works as a children’s novel. It’s something that kids should read in school as an introduction to World War 1 but, beyond that, it’s just too simplistic and quaint. There are some great anti-war sentiments and some fantastic quotes about how stupid the whole endeavour is. However, the whole conflict is shown through rose-tinted glasses (I guess that should be horse-tinted glasses) and is too far removed from reality. It doesn’t feel as though we’re hearing about a real conflict thanks to Joey’s narration. I don’t understand how so many adults can praise this as being a powerful and emotive read. It doesn’t quite cut it for me. This is a book that people read when they want to seem like they give a shit about our history but are too afraid to find out the real details. This isn’t a good portrait of the Great War: this is World War 1 the Disney way. It’s kind of pathetic. I admit that I did shed a tear near the end but that was for a show of human compassion that far surpassed any potential sadness at the death shown in the book. The book was definitely a step up from the film, which was so dire and silly I can’t believe it was so highly praised. I just don’t think, especially after seeing the stage show, that it lives up to its hype.

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