Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

What’s it about?

The story centres around Billy Pilgrim. It tells us his life story with focus as his time as a prisoner of war in the Second World War. Billy is far from your typical war hero. He is in fact a chaplains assistant. He carries no weapon, has no boots and is not a threat to anybody. When he is captured by the Germans he goes on a hellish journey, involving packed trains and a concentration camp before eventually finding himself in Dresden, the sight of a brutal bombing attack by the Allies which left the city in ruins. It doesn’t solely focus on the war though. Billy can time travel, and we join him in various stages of his life as he becomes an optometrist, survives a plane crash, spends time in an asylum and is abducted by aliens. All the while this is viewed through the lens of the atrocity he witnessed at Dresden.

What did I think?

This book is a modern(ish) classic. People have recommended it to me repeatedly and I never seemed to get around to reading it. Now, I wish I had read it the moment I heard of it. I loved this book. It fascinated me, making me laugh, filling me with horror and leaving me confounded in equal amounts. Let’s breakdown what it is about this book that makes it so special.

First, the unique narrative voice of this piece is unlike anything I have read before. The first chapter of the book is written from the authors point of view, describing his journey to see an old friend before we then plough into the story of Billy Pilgrim but the author pops up in the story from time to time as a background character. It is such a unique way of telling the story and blurs the lines between what is real, what is the story and how much of the narrative we can believe. Although confusing, I found it incredibly engrossing. This is completely apt as Billy’s story jumps around from his time in the war, to his time at college, getting married, growing old, been abducted by aliens and many other life events. There is no clear narrative structure which usually would leave a book feeling disjointed but somehow it works.

“There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

As you can see from the quotes I have used in this review, the writing itself is beautiful. Vonnegut has a style which is simultaneously simple but profound. Often passages would stop me in my tracks, and I would re-read substantial portions of the book just to take in the beauty of it. The imagery used throughout the book is powerful and moving. You would expect a book partially set during one of the biggest killings of World War Two to be moving, but the focus on minute details, like two distressed horses used by the soldiers, convey that horror in such a powerful way. It is the perfect example of less is more. We are given the full picture of the war and the devastation caused but it is often the smaller details which really hammer it home.

Each character in this book is fascinating in a unique way. They are all so vibrant and alive. Billy Pilgrim, the main character, is a fish out of water throughout most of the book and yet continues to survive and to keep going, Roland Weary is a slightly deranged, deluded person who believes he is a great soldier with all of his heart. The English officers who briefly accommodate them in one of the camps are hilarious, strange stereotypes. Every new character you meet is interesting and brings a whole new dynamic to the story. There is no filler, no characters just included because it makes the book seem more rounded, every character is there for a purpose and they serve that purpose. The wonderfully tight, effective writing is perfectly suited to the characters.

“The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear.They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right right in front of the, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole was six feet of pipe.

One of the greatest achievements of this book is the ability it has is to make me laugh. For a book which never shirks its responsibility of depicting the horrors of war accurately, Vonnegut manages to find humour in various aspects of Billy Pilgrim’s journey. It is never crass or insensitive it is merely showing that even in the bleakest of the scenarios humour can be found. The strange characters and settings allow Vonnegut to play with humour and the biggest laughs often come from the bleakest scenarios.

This book is a modern classic. It has been referenced and cited more times than could ever be counted. It has clearly inspired many of today’s writers, with the likes of George Saunders quoting it as an inspiration. I often find reading classics can be a frustrating experience. I struggle to enjoy the books due to the weight of expectation which has been placed upon them, thanks to the endless hype and praise I have heard. Slaughterhouse-Five, however, is a rare example of classic which has exceeded my expectations and surpassed all praise I have heard it receive. It is a master stroke. Powerful, moving, heart-breaking, hilarious, and intriguing. Each word is wielded to profound effect and this is a book I already know I will re-read many, many times. Sometimes classics are classics for a reason.

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