27 May 2013

Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Published: 2006

Pages: 703 (paperback)

Genre/s: Historical Fiction, War

Source: Own library


Fire Support Base Matterhorn: a fortress carved out of the grey-green mountain jungle. Cold monsoon clouds wreath its mile-high summit, concealing a battery of 105-mm howitzers surrounded by deep bunkers, carefully constructed fields of fire and the 180 marines of Bravo Company. Just three kilometres from Laos and two from North Vietnam, there is no more isolated outpost of America's increasingly desperate war in Vietnam. Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, 21 years old and just a few days into his 13-month tour, has barely arrived at Matterhorn before Bravo Company is ordered to abandon their mountain and sent deep in-country in pursuit of a North Vietnamese Army unit of unknown size. Beyond the relative safety of the perimeter wire, Mellas will face disease, starvation, leeches, tigers and an almost invisible enemy. Beneath the endless jungle canopy, Bravo Company will confront competing ambitions, duplicitous officers and simmering racial tensions. Behind them, always, Matterhorn. The impregnable mountain fortress they built and then abandoned, without a shot, to the North Vietnamese Army.

My Thoughts

I would probably never read Matterhorn if it wasn't for a group on Goodreads that had several members raving about how despite the fact they aren't the biggest fan of war stories, they loved Matterhorn.  And it's not that I don't love war stories, I've just had bad luck in the past with stories that have such a strong military focus - normally I need a bit of romance or home front drama to counteract endless passages about maneuvers and weapons.

But Matterhorn is so much more than a war story - it is an intricate look at one group of marines as they battle their way through jungles, leaches, ironic dehydration and hypothermia and an enemy that no one quite understands.
As with any such book there is a large cast of characters, but Mr. Marlantes obviously put a lot of work into his characterisation, and within just a few short chapters I was no longer struggling to remember who was who, and by the end I was so emotionally invested in all of the characters it was difficult to bid them goodbye.

Waino Mellas is the perfect choice of main character for a book like Matterhorn - he's a bit of a lost soul in the 'real' world and that manifests itself into an almost dangerous insecurity early on in the book and Marlantes isn't afraid to reveal Mellas' real feelings - very much confirming that men at war are first and foremost human beings.

There are alternating POVs, as Mellas' superior plays the political game and plots his strategy, and these are the only parts of the book that really lost me.  Although they were pivotal to the story, these sections are the thing that I was most afraid of - heavy on strategy and political manipulation - and the only thing that I didn't love about Matterhorn.

Being about the Vietnam war, there was a lot more at play than just two countries fighting each other.  Racial tension builds between the black and white soldiers, with some shocking results, and one part in particular towards the end had me gasping out loud.

There are, surprisingly, only a few really intense action scenes which feel very realistic - chaotic and heart-pounding, and a far bigger focus on the relationships formed between Mellas and the men of Bravo Company and between each other.  

At 700 pages, this isn't a book you can sail through in a few hours, but it is incredibly addictive and every time I had to put it down for real life, I couldn't wait to get back to it and find out what would happen to the men of Bravo Company next.   

1 comment:

  1. my boss read this book a couple of years ago and he told me that it really interesting. i don't usually read a ton of war novels either. i think knowing that these things happened just makes them too sad for me. i may try it one day but it probably won't be anytime soon.

    fishgirl182 @ nite lite book reviews



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