Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone is a thin volume of vignettes from her experiences in French Army field hospitals during WW1. I’ve dipped into it many times, reading and rereading several stories. But I took over a year to read it from cover to cover. I just didn’t want it to end. And it’s taken a while to write this review since I finished reading it, as I searched for words to do it justice.
Borden was a Chicago heiress born in 1886. She graduated from Vassar College, married and settled in London. In WW1, she volunteered for the French Red Cross, then offered to fund and manage a field hospital for the French Army. For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and named Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
The Forbidden Zone is a jewel in form and in substance. Borden employs several styles – prose poems, essays, the dialogue of a short play, memoirs, short stories – with no conventional plot running through. Together, they seem like the literary equivalent of an exhibition of photographs and short films.
And what pictures she presents.
Some account the range of war experiences.
A young woman and man (he now an amputee, wheelchair-bound) sit side-by-side on the beach, yet are each isolated in their contemplation of their fate with the other.
A hardened Parisian criminal, the Enfant de Malheur, was sentenced to penal servitude and then conscripted. Deathly afraid of death, he struggles with the priest but ultimately finds peace before he dies.
A soldier who attempts suicide must be saved by the medical team so he can be shot as an example.
Some are astute observations.
They were old men and they knew. … Their sons had been killed. They were taking the place of their sons. … Being old men, there was nothing they could not accept; there was nothing they could not endure. … There was only one thing they wanted, and this thing they wanted without hope. They wanted to go home, and they knew they were not going home. (The Regiment, p 24)
I have other companions more intimate than these. Three in particular, a lascivious monster, a sick bad-tempered animal, and an angel: Pain, Life and Death. (Moonlight, p 40)
Some are personal reflections.
How many women, I wondered, were waiting out there in the distance for news of these men who were lying on the floor? But I stopped thinking about this the minute the boy was dead. It didn’t do to think.
Their courtesy when they died, their reluctance to cause me any trouble by dying or suffering, was one of the things it didn’t do to think about.
And I was happy. It seemed to me that the crazy crowded bright hot shelter was a beautiful place. I thought, ‘This is the second battlefield. The battle now is going on over the helpless bodies of these men. It is we who are doing the fighting now, with their real enemies.’ (Blind, pp 92, 94, 97)
Why is The Forbidden Zone not as well-known or as celebrated as other books by those who bore witness to the war? It was published contemporaneously with All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Goodbye to All That, Testament of Youth and the like. Yet it quickly went out of print, out of sight until the recent 2008 edition. It deserves to be heralded along with its contemporaries, punching above the weight of its 112 pages.
My volume will remain close at hand, ready to reread its fragments again.
The original 1929 publication of The Forbidden Zone included five of Borden’s war poems. Why are they not in the 2008 edition? You can read three of the poems (The Hill, The Song of the Mud, Where is Jehovah?) in the August 1917 edition of The English Review, starting at p 97. Or look for them, as well as The Virgin of Albert and Unidentified, in other anthologies.
My post on Birdsong now includes a review of the TV adaptation.
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