This 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
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
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.
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 Fox–hunting 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.