Tag Archives: First World War

The Repercussions: War, what is it good for…

Cover imageI’m an assiduous viewer of Channel 4 News – I’d probably be a happier person if I wasn’t – and have often wondered how it feels to report on the dreadful mess of human misery that is war. I’ve thought the same when looking at those stark images you see in newspapers, some becoming emblematic of particular conflicts. The moral dilemma of bearing witness as opposed to getting stuck in and helping those in distress is an eternal conundrum. And what does it do to those who make it their life’s work? These are the themes that Catherine Hall explores in her moving and thought-provoking novel.

It begins with Jo’s narrative addressed to her ex-lover, Susie. Jo has just returned from Afghanistan, taking refuge in her Aunt Edith’s Brighton flat, now hers since Edith’s death a few weeks ago. She’s in a state of shock, in desperate need of unburdening herself. This has been her second stint in the country. The first was a decade ago, just after 9/11. There have been many wars in between her two visits, many atrocities witnessed, but this time the horror was more personal. Not entirely sure why she had decided to return, Jo settled on a set of photographs about the commonplace domestic violence dealt out to women by their husbands and male relatives in the name of honour, enlisting the help of Rashida freshly graduated from her journalism course. Things did not end well. To distract herself, Jo reads the diary she finds tucked away in her aunt’s desk. It’s the journal of Elizabeth Willoughby who worked alongside the medical staff at Brighton Pavilion where Indian Army casualties were cared for during the First World War, well away from their white British comrades.

It’s a far from uncommon device to have a character stumble across a diary written long ago, then alternate its contents with a present day narrative. It can often be horribly clunky – the worst example I can think of is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – but if done well each can illuminate the other, and Hall manages this beautifully. The strictures on the behaviour of women in Afghanistan are echoed in the forbidding of Elizabeth from nursing Indian soldiers thereby compromising her reputation. Her fiancé’s – to our eyes – obvious shell shock is echoed in the nightmares in which the many atrocities Jo has seen are re-enacted. Historical context is lightly delivered, deftly wrapped into both narratives. Hall’s exploration of the morality of war photography and its effects on those who practice it are vivid and immediate. All this is achieved in an intensely involving story – moving, poignant and often surprising. It’s a novel which succeeds in treating a deadly serious subject in a gripping, humane and thoroughly engrossing way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next.

The Heroes’ Welcome and a trip to Fulham Palace Gardens

Fulham PalaceTrawling 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. FictionCover image 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 Heroes' WelcomeThe 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.