Book Review : Lest We Forget

photoThis year, of course, marks the centenary of the start of the First World War and ,with this in mind, I decided to do some themed reading over the course of the year. I have already reviewed Goodbye To All That  here but here are two recently published novels both dealing with the subject and both by female writers. This is not a compare and contrast review but, I hope, an appreciation of two fine books that happen to deal with similar themes.

Coincidentally, both are set in 1920, two years after the end of the war, and both deal with the ‘aftershocks’ of the war on the surviving soldiers and the women they left behind.

WAKE by Anna Hope

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Here we meet 3 seemingly unconnected women all, unbeknownst to them, bound together by terrible events at the front.

Hetty earns her living as a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais, sitting in a cage with other girls until a man will come along and pay the price to release her for a dance. The author explains this particular phenomenon of the times in a note at the end of the book. At home there is Fred , her shell-shocked brother, back from the war but unable to escape the horrors of what he has experienced.

Ada is a housewife who cannot let go of the past and her dead son, Michael, killed in action at the front.

Evelyn is possibly the most interesting character in the book.Upper middle class and single, after losing her lover in the war, she is now regarded as useless by her family.After tasting a freedom of sorts during the war, a return to her former life of waiting to be married is now impossible. She is trapped in a meaningless job as a clerk in the Ministry of Pensions way below her capabilities but a real career is denied her. She is one of the 2 million……..spare women now with no marriage prospects and therefore no future.

The action is centred round the unveiling of The Cenotaph in London and the arrival of he body of the Unknown Soldier. Tensions mount with the arrival of Rowan, another soldier returned from France,and finally the terrible secret that binds the lives of the women together is revealed.

THE LIE  by Helen Dunmore

photoDunmore’s latest novel is set in Cornwall.Daniel Branwell has returned from the war to his childhood village. He is haunted by his memories of the front and of his friend Frederick, killed in France.

The novel explores the way that class lines became blurred in the thick of the battle. In the trenches, Daniel’s boyhood friendship with the son of the family for whom his mother worked as a maid is rekindled.

Dunmore also deals delicately with the issue of ‘shellshock‘. She uses a stream of consciousness style as Daniel increasingly slips between his current reality and what happened to him back at the front, unable to differentiate between the two.

‘The dead aren’t tied to one place………Things ought to stop once they’ve finished, but his won’t stop. They say the war’s over, but they’re wrong. It went too deep for that. It opened up a crack in time, a crater maybe.’

He also meets Felicia again, Frederick’s sister, who he admired from afar as a boy. Felicia can sense  Daniel’s pain and wants to help him escape……but Daniel has told a lie to explain his presence in the village and the truth is catching up with him.

Any Suggestions??

I enjoyed both these novels enormously and was really unable to put them down. I am definitely going to read some more First World War fiction during this year. I am planning to read Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man at some point but I would love any suggestions of other books to read………..particularly dealing with the experience of ‘Commonwealth’ soldiers whose contribution is often overlooked.

Fathers and Sons…….and Nabokov

photo (3)What makes a good father? What makes a great novel? Can we ever be free of our past? These are some of the questions posed by David Gilbert’s New York set novel &Sons.

A.N. Dyer is an elderly Salinger-esque  novelist, haunted by his coming of age novel Ampersand and it’s hero, Edgar Mead. Haunted also by his relationship with his own sons… the elder Richard and Jamie; and the much younger Andy. Haunted too by his lifelong friendship with Charlie Topping ,in part an inspiration for Ampersand,  and whose funeral starts this novel.

Charlie’s death forces Andrew to face his own mortality and he convenes a family meeting to discuss the future for Andy, still a teenager.

The story is intermittently narrated by Phillip Topping, Charlie’s eldest son, a malevolent and very unreliable narrator. Phillip has discovered a store of letters and postcards from Andrew to Charlie when they were young men…..and crucially one from Charlie to Andrew.One of these is reproduced at the start of each of the eight sections……and so the background to Ampersand is revealed.

Meanwhile the relationships between Andrew and each of his sons unfold and we look, too,at the relationship an artist has with his creation.

This all sounds very intellectual but this is a very comic book . Not laugh out loud funny maybe but some very amusing observations , particularly of the world of publishing.

One of the funniest set pieces in the novel is a launch party thrown for the first book of the latest yet-to-be-discovered literary sensation….a spoiled little rich kid with zero self-awareness. Gilbert describes the gathered publicists,agents and novelists as :

....discussing new novels or retreats or conferences, yeah, yeah, Amazon, yeah, yeah, ebooks, sigh, Franzen.

There are also sideswipes at the world of film making and acting, with Richard’s unsuccessful attempt to sell the movie rights of Ampersand.As well as a look at the strange world of on-line success stories when a rather tasteless video of Jamie’s goes viral without him realising.

Other reviews I read of &Sons talked about Gilbert’s admiration for Nabokov and drew comparisons with Pnin,  also intermittently narrated by someone with a grudge so I decided to read it as a companion piece.

Pnin tells the story of Timofey Pnin , a Russian emigre from the Revolution, who is now just about surviving as an academic in a lesser know US university. It was criticised when first published not being a novel at all but a stitching together of comic articles Nabokov had previously written for magazines like The New Yorker. It’s patchwork birth does show a little but it is , at best, a very funny early campus novel.

It has a circular structure and finishes exactly where it started.Much of the humour is derived from Pnin’s always incomplete grasp of the English language and it’s idioms. The now lost world of the Russian emigre is acutely observed. At times the writing is very moving.

A visit to a fellow emigre’s summer house and a discussion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provokes a ‘ madeleine moment’ for Timofey. He is transported back to the innocence and beauty of a young love affair, with the horrible knowledge that the object of his affections was killed by the Nazis at Buchenwald. A truly heart rending memory that moved me to tears.

I would describe both these novels as near misses rather than direct hits BUT both are enjoyable and , at times, thought provoking reads. I am not sure I am any closer to answering the question of the author’s relationship to his creation. Any ideas?