Poignant and powerful (4.5 stars)
Source- library copy- borrowed from a friend
Published in January 2014 by Doubleday
I read the hardback edition which is 336 pages
**Wake / Werk
1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep
2) Ritual for the dead
3) Consequence or Aftermath**
Told across five consecutive days in November 1920 as the body of the Unknown Soldier returns home from Northern France prior to being interned in the Cenotaph, Wake is a powerfully told story about the intertwining lives of three very different women. Hettie is a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother has returned from the battlefields a complete wreck, Ada is a housewife haunted by visions of her dead son and civil servant Evelyn’s heart is forever broken after the loss of her partner in the trenches. As all three women struggle to come to terms with their own sense of grief, the mood of a nation is slowly changing amidst the aftermath of an unimaginable war.
I found Wake to be a quiet but moving story as well as a stellar debut from an author I am keen to see more of in future. The title of this book is also so appropriate given its themes. Evocative and poignant and filled with depth and yearning, the story seems to capture the changing face of Britain following the end of World War I through three very well-drawn characters, all of whom have been deeply impacted by horrific events across the Channel.
Often when I read books about either World War I or World War II, they have been set in the battlefields themselves, so it was truly interesting to read a novel set a couple of years afterwards that fully showed the devastation the war still had on those who had lived through it. It isn’t a case of soldiers being lucky enough to have survived, because when you consider the trauma they have been through and are still facing even years afterwards, their lives are in complete turmoil. Similarly for the families and loved ones who remained in Britain- when the soldiers returned from the trenches they were often very different people from those who had left and I feel that this book captures that beautifully. There is a sense of disconnection and sometimes a basic lack of understanding, relationships are irrevocably shattered, friendships break down and all that is left behind is a sense of bitterness and loss. Men struggle to get jobs to support their families and sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. The parallels between those soldiers from WWI and the stories of those fighting overseas today are sadly all too clear to see.
The three women themselves in Wake were particularly well-drawn and I appreciated how their lives are all intertwined with one another, even though they are not aware of it. This added a clever mystery element to the story which was nicely crafted as the reader slowly comprehends the connections, which are gradually unveiled. Throughout the story the reader is aware that a conclusion is on the horizon, though when it arrives it is still devastating for those involved.
Evelyn is a somewhat prickly individual and not especially likeable, though as the plot progresses, the reasons for this become apparent. Not only has she lost someone that she loves during the war, but her brother too, has been affected in ways that she is only just beginning to realise. Hettie for me, was something of a secondary character in comparison. Her brother has returned from the trenches and is battle-scarred so Hettie has to earn money for her mother, brother and herself. She was sweet and likeable enough but I didn’t feel especially significant to the story in the way that Evelyn and Ada were.
Housewife Ada is haunted by the loss of her son and in the years since the war her marriage has been ripped apart. In her grief and guilt, she cannot see that she needs to be there for those around her who are still living. I feel Ada was the strongest character and her heartbreak was incredibly moving and felt so real. I wanted her to have some kind of closure in knowing and understanding what had happened to her only child. To know that so many families lived through Ada’s situation is absolutely devastating.
The novel for me, ended on a message of hope- at least that’s the way that I understood it, albeit perhaps the ending was slightly sudden for my tastes. I think that’s possibly just because I was so invested in the lives of these characters that I just wanted to know everything about them- including how they would continue to live in future.
In 1998 I went on a school trip to the battlefields of Northern France. I suppose it is inappropriate to say that I was ‘fortunate’ enough to visit some of the sites that are talked about in this book, but it was such a humbling, important experience. At Ypres I can remember the football-field sized rows and rows of white crosses; it is such a haunting memory. In recalling that visit years later, I think that is why this book resonated with me so much- there were a lot of graves that indeed were sadly unmarked that stood out to me that day. The Unknown Soldier represented so many things to so many people following the war- a father, a brother, an uncle, a son, a lover. He stood for all of those young men who sadly never returned from war and gave their lives so that others could live. The three women in this book may be fictional but their stories are nonetheless very real- despite your feelings about the Unknown Soldier and whether or not it was merely propaganda or a political statement, there is no denying that.
Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction or anyone wanting to know more about life in Britain following the end of World War I. Anna Hope is an author I will certainly be looking out for in future.