It would have been remiss of me this week not to have read a book about the First World War. I spent a couple of summers ago discovering Pat Barker, and with her an awful lot of books set in the period, but have not read another for a while. I’ve bought a fair few books about the War, fiction and non-fiction, for my work library, and this one made it to the top of the pile because it was slightly different from the others; it told the story of the War for those that stayed at home and was also about the after effects in 1920, rather than in the midst of war itself.
Set over the five days leading up to the 1920 Armistice Day, this is three interlinked stories focussing on three very different women. Evelyn works for the pensions office, aggravating her family with her stubbornness and apparent bitterness towards the war. Ada cannot stop seeing her dead son on street corners. Nineteen year old Hettie works as a dance instructor-you hire her for sixpence a dance at the Hammersmith Palais-but longs for freedom from her horrible mother. It also follows the journey home of the Unknown Warrior, buried in Westminster Abbey on that day in front of a large crowd of mourners, representing all the fallen men whose bodies were never found or brought home.
This book firstly made me very very angry. There are things I don’t know about war because they never really occur to one. Like, who clears up battlefields afterwards? The involvement of Chinese labourers shipped in the France to clear battlefields of bodies and unexploded shells, that all too often then exploded, killing them, was only very briefly touched upon but made me take to Google immediately afterwards. The fact that the Temporary Gentlemen, who were made Officers during the war but came from lower class background, received very little financial support after the war because it was the norm that if you were an Officer you’d have family money behind you. They charged people exuberant fees to visit their loved ones buried in the war graves in France, rather than cover the expense of bringing bodies home. So many things.
The book also made me very very sad. When you read a book with one the characters the same age as you are and find yourself thinking “she acts like I would in that situation”, as I did with Evelyn, it is hard not to be emotionally affected by their story. And Ada and Hettie’s stories also made me cry.In fact, this book was going to get a 4/5 right up until the end when I found myself weeping on the train back to Burley finishing it.
Well structured and paced, with moments of drama and real tenderness. The characters come alive very quickly and she manages to tell complete stories over a very short time frame. A very speedy read for me, not because I was gripped by the story but because I was enjoying the writing so much. It flows without being pretentious and slips from one character to the next without ever being clunky or badly handled. For a debut it is astonishingly well crafted. I look forward to more of Anna Hope.
There have been parts of the commemorations this week I found to be genuinely moving, and others I found crass and staged, but I think it is important to remember the dead and this book made me think about WHY that is. It strips away the romanticism of the 1920s and makes it into something rather desperate. It also reminds you that life, always, finds a way.
I loved this book, and would really recommend it to anyone wanting to read fiction set at the time. I’d also really recommend it to a book club as I think you could have a really powerful debate on bits of it.