I met up with a friend in Salisbury last week, a city of which I’m very fond although it feels more like a town to me. It’s a lovely train journey from Bath but the countryside was swathed in murk and so a book was needed, one that wasn’t too demanding given that there’s no quiet carriage on that route. Elizabeth Day’s Home Fires looked a possibility. It explores the effects of war across the generations through a single family so hardly a piece of escapism but it’s more in Joanna Trollope than Siri Hustvedt territory, engaging but not taxing – just the thing for a rackety train and an appropriate choice for a trip that was taking me through Warminster along the edges of Salisbury Plain, military training heartland.
It opens in 1920 with Elsa, aged six, frightened by the strange, angry man who’s invaded her happy childhood. Clearly suffering from shell-shock, Horace flinches at the slightest noise and beats his small daughter for the smallest infringement. Cut to Caroline in 2010, Elsa’s daughter-in-law drugged into a state where she can cope with her soldier son’s death, but unable to accept it. The stories of these two are interwoven with flashbacks to Caroline’s difficult relationship with the exacting, snobbish but deeply damaged Elsa, Andrew’s stoicism at his son’s death and Max’s determination to make a difference in the world no matter what it takes. When it becomes clear that ninety-eight-year-old Elsa can no longer cope on her own, Andrew moves her into the family home. Relations between the two women – one much diminished but still finding a way to best her daughter-in-law, the other faced with a lifetime of never measuring up while becoming obsessed with military casualties – become strained to breaking point. The relationship between Elsa and Caroline is painfully well drawn and Day’s portrayal of a couple trying to deal with the loss of their beloved son is both convincing and moving. It’s a perceptive novel, not one that’s likely to find itself on any literary prize lists, but absorbing and thought-provoking for all that.