There are a great many historical novels that center around one war or another, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, if I read too many too close together, I get bogged down in the sameness of the awfulness (of war- not of the books). But other times, I read a book that manages to really move me, even though it retreads essentially the same paths and comes up with the same message.
I just finished Wake by Anna Hope, an extraordinary debut. The book is set in London in 1920 as the city is preparing to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day. The celebration will include the burial of the Unknown Warrior. Scattered in short scenes throughout the novel are images of the exhuming of an anonymous corpse and its preparation for burial. The Unknown Warrior theme forms a framework for the novel that gives it more emotional heft. I’m surprised by how healing it felt (for me at the end of the book) to lay that unidentified but symbolic corpse to rest.
Evelyn lost her lover and she is unable to recover from the loss. She works in the government pensions office. Every day of her life is salt in the wound. Added onto that loss is that the one person she thought she could rely on, her younger brother, returned from the war changed. Though outwardly charming as ever to others, he is nastier to her. He drinks and parties too much. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t at all bothered by what has destroyed so many others.
Hettie is a young dance instructress at a jazz club. She yearns for freedom and a life of her own, but she has to help support her mother and her brother, who has come home from the war shell-shocked and unable to work. One night, dancing, she meets a handsome, wealthy stranger who seems to promise her the excitement and freedom she craves, but he, too, has been touched by the war.
Finally, there is Ada, who has lost her only son. She received only a brief letter from the war office informing her that Michael was dead, but nothing to indicate when, or how, or where his body was buried. For a long time, Ada couldn’t accept his death. Even now, she sees his ghost.
These women’s stories are beautifully told. In small flashes, some of the horror of World War I slips in, but this is more about the lingering afteraffects of the war. The losses were permanent. People had to learn to live with their loss. And in this affecting novel, time and support help these women to learn how it will be possible for them to live on.
Check out all the historical novels being read by participants of the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. There's still time to join up!