Trawling the internet looking for somewhere to meet my aunt with the prospect of a lovely day in view, I lit upon Fulham Palace thanks to a piece in the Telegraph about quirky, less well known places to visit in London. We met on Monday which was as gorgeous as the Met. Office had promised and the gardens were lovely. Getting there from Putney Bridge tube station proved to be a more of a challange than I’d expected given Google’s confusing directions – not just me, M lost her way, too, – but it was well worth it. There’s what looks like a newly restored walled garden resplendent with irises, lots of green space, a few sculptures and a café serving delicious cake. We didn’t make it into the palace – too much to talk about and too lovely outside – but we had a very nice time indeed.
I took Louisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome to keep me occupied on the train. Fiction publishing schedules are crowded with First World War novels this year, so much so that I’m becoming a little weary of the theme, but it’s the sequel to My Dear I Wanted to Tell You which I’d read and very much enjoyed a few years ago so I’d been looking forward to it. The first novel is about five young people: working class boy Riley Purefoy; landed gentry Peter Locke married to beautiful, lost Julia who suffers a breakdown when he goes to war; Peter’s cousin Rose; and Nadine who becomes a VAD in France. What I had particularly admired about the novel was the way in which Young explored the class tension between Nadine and Riley who share an artistic talent and fall deeply in love much to both sets of parents’ horror.
The second novel picks up the five main characters in 1919, each of them deeply damaged by their experiences of war. Peter has taken refuge in Homer, reading The Iliad obsessively to shut out the litany of the names of the dead for whom he feels responsible. His comrade, Riley, whose jaw has been shot away, is angry – trying to find a place for himself in the civilian world. His saving grace is the love of Nadine who is dealing with her own horrors at what she saw at the Front. Julia is at a loss to know how to help Peter, taking to her bed while their three-year-old son, confused and lonely, sleeps with the dog in his basket for comfort. Rose, as ever, does the best she can, putting everyone’s interest before her own. Each of them casualties in their own way.
Young’s sympathetic characterisation draws you in immediately. Her opening chapter sees Riley and Nadine marry, neither sure how things will be on the wedding night: each heartrendingly considerate of the other’s feelings. What had been joyful and celebratory before the war is now fraught with emotional and physical difficulty. When they finally overcome their diffidence it makes you want to whoop with joy. Peter’s desperate, self-destructive attempts to shut out the horrors of the battle field, and his overwhelming sense of responsibility are poignantly conveyed. For so many, it was not to be talked about, could not be talked about lest the floodgates open. This silence and miscommunication is so skilfully woven into the novel that you find yourself aching for someone to break it as these poor damaged characters try to find their way out of the maze of sorrow, some more successfully than others. The final part of the book leaps to 1927 with hopes of new beginnings though not for all. It’s a powerful novel which neatly avoids sentimentality. You don’t have to have read My Dear I Wanted to Tell You to enjoy The Heroes’ Welcome but you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t and it’s in paperback. Hats off to Borough Press for the gorgeous jacket which adorns Heroes’. Effective, too – it was commented on by three people on Monday who all asked me if the book was good.