One can almost feel the torture the author put himself through during his research, through the interminable hours plodding through the old war diaries and the endless newspaper headlines. While commendable, the approach has produced an at times too monotonous, too trivial a history – obsessed with the minutiae of an epochal phase.
At the same time, even as we see this, we can also see how Clarke tried hard to avoid doing the same to the reader, trying to alleviate the effects of an overdose of political trivia by giving (sometimes read-in) significance to even the daily routines and sleep habits of the delegates at the famous conferences that peppered the war. Maybe the author could not help it, maybe once you become familiar enough with the side characters through volumes of their personal diary, even these otherwise insignificant things might carry meaning.
The obsession with Churchill to the exclusion of much else is probably what reduces the significance of the book a few notches but, paradoxically, also increases the readability by as many and more notches. Perhaps this was intended or was an unfortunate editorial mandate? In either case, I for one wished Clarke did not indulge in this as much as he did.
To come back to the structure of the book, Clarke uses an impressive reference list that comprises little-known diaries, long-lost newspaper and magazine pieces and the many writings of the day to put together credible character portraits and sketches of daily activities that form the background to the war that shaped the modern world.
It is intriguing reading for the most part but there is a caveat: it should not be read with a strict intention of understanding the history of the war and its aftermath, but needs to be approached with a keenness to go beyond the facts of the war and to the human element and the politics that shaped its policy decisions. This too is important to understand, for while the direction of the war might not have been altered much by a change of cast, the shape of the play was most definitely determined by their unique cast of flawed yet grand players.