A multitude of books will no doubt be published this year commemorating the outbreak of World War I, many of them novels adding to the already substantial body of fiction devoted to it including Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, to name but a few. Stiff competition, then. Three 2014 novels have caught my eye, one of which is Anna Hope’s debut Wake, partly because it explores women’s experience of the war and its aftermath, partly because of its unusual premise. Set in 1920 it covers five days in which the body of the Unknown Soldier is chosen, prepared for burial, transported from the battlefields of France and given a state funeral on what will come to be known as Remembrance day.
Wake follows three disparate women over the course of those five days – Hettie, a ‘dance instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais charging sixpence a dance; Evelyn, from a well-connected family, who works in the war pensions office; and Ada, a housewife who has lost her son. Hettie’s brother is shell-shocked, unable to look for work, haunted by nightmares. Evelyn’s brother, a captain returned from the Front, spends much of his time drunk while she misses her lost lover, judging the veterans forced to plead their case before they even open their mouths. Ada and Jack no longer talk about their son but Ada cannot accept his death nor understand why she has never learnt the details of that death the way that other mothers have. Threaded through their stories is the progress of the Unknown Soldier as he nears the end of his journey, bringing the country together in what is hoped will be a cathartic act of communal grief and a commemoration of sacrifice.
Hope shows us a battered Britain through the eyes of Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, deftly conveying the complicated mess and aching loss of it all. It is not a ‘land fit for heroes’: war veterans, mentally and physically ravaged, are lucky to have a job, many of them reduced to hawking poor quality goods door-to-door. Everyone is emotionally ragged, exhausted after four years of grinding deprivation and nerve-wracking uncertainty. Those who have not been to the Front are unable to understand what the returning men have been through. The separate strands of the three women’s very different lives are brought together in a riveting passage as Evelyn listens to the story which links them all, and the reader understands its outcome with a sickening certainty before the end is told. It’s an accomplished, often very moving, piece of work which ends on a note of hope
Apparently, Hope had the idea of writing Wake while researching women’s social history and the suffrage movement so it’s worth noting that, shocking as it may seem, despite the fact that many women contributed to the war effort – Evelyn works in a munitions factory, for instance – most would not gain the vote until 1928, a decade after the war ended. Seems scarcely believable now, but it’s all too true.