Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Five Days in November, 1920
As the body of the Unknown Soldier makes its way home from the fields of Northern France, three women are dealing with loss in their own way: Hettie, who dances for sixpence a waltz at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who toils at a job in the pensions office, and Ada, a housewife who is beset by visions of her dead son. One day a young man comes to her door. He carries with him a wartime mystery that will bind these women together and will both mend and tear their hearts.
A portrait of three intertwining lives caught at the faultline between empire and modernity, Wake captures the beginnings of a new era, and the day the mood of the nation changed for ever.
I always struggle a little with doling out five star ratings and for some reason it’s even harder when it’s the first one of the year. There are some days when I think that five star ratings should be reserved for life-changing, world-affirming books. There are others when I understand that the really great books aren’t only those that tackle huge ideas or break new ground but those that perfectly capture a time or feeling. Wake is an absolute gem that does just that. I expect that there will be a lot of fiction focussing on various aspects of World War I released and/or talked about this year but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think that this will be among the best of them.
For a relatively short book, Wake manages to seamlessly cover an awful lot of the issues post-World War I Britain was facing. The novel is set during the five days in which the body of the Unknown Warrior is transported from its initial resting place in France to Westminster Abbey, culminating in a public ceremony and the interment. During those five days, readers get an insight into the lives of three frankly fantastic women doing what so many women were doing while the nation was recovering. They’re learning to live with loss, learning to be free from constant fear of telegrams containing devastating news and trying to find new ways to be content, if not happy.
One of my absolute favourite things about Wake is that it doesn’t go in for shock tactics and isn’t at all showy. It won’t drag you through the mud, barbed wire and trauma of the trenches or baffle you with statistics about the sheer scale of the tragic loss of life. Instead, it will introduce you to three women that are quietly struggling. I defy you not to identify with and love at least one of them. Hettie, Evelyn and Ada are all at different times of their lives and wading through different types of grief but I promise that they’re all equally wonderful.
Between them, the women are recovering from the deaths of a son, a lover and a father and brothers that have returned from war as changed men. I found Evelyn the easiest to relate to, I think because she is the most similar to me out of the three. During the war, Evelyn found work in a munitions factory and, after the war, is working in a pensions office. She was a similar age to me and I felt as though I understood her attitude and feelings somehow more than other characters’. The tension between Ada and her husband was palpable and their efforts to find each other again after suffering terribly is agonising to read. Hettie provides occasional light relief, although “light” is obviously relative. There is obviously still loss there but she’s a young woman that wants to dance at the emerging hidden jazz clubs, wear her hair in a sleek bob and buy a luscious sequinned dress. It’s nice to have a glimmer of hope and Hope does a good job of balancing that with the darker themes.
I suppose that what’s amazing is that the book doesn’t feel too heavy. It will batter your emotions, without a doubt, but in a subtle way that isn’t quite as exhausting as anything less delicately handled might otherwise have been. As well as everything else, Hope manages to explore the frustration felt by returned soldiers that couldn’t find work because of lasting injuries, both mental and physical. There are some descriptions of dignified gentlemen forced to look to the state for meagre and ever-decreasing soldiers’ pensions, queuing outside the office at which Evelyn works in the wind and rain. Those descriptions broke my heart. That men who had been through so were forced to endure such humiliation was just too sad. There are just so many moments and so many ways that this book will get under your skin and it’s so well woven together that it’s easy not to realise how far it has burrowed until you’re shedding tears.
If you’re looking for a plot that will set your pulse racing, Wake probably isn’t the book that you’re looking for. If you are in any way a fan of character-based novels, however, I can’t think of a more beautiful example than this. As you might expect, there are some poignant moments and I had a deeply ingrained need for Hettie, Evelyn and Ada to find their own kind of peace. I genuinely cared about them and it was that that kept me feverishly turning the pages until I had finished and learnt everything about them and their secrets. And, because I obviously haven’t praised Wake enough, the ending is just spot on too.
“And whatever anyone thinks or says, England didn’t win this war. And Germany wouldn’t have won it, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“War wins.” He says. “And it keeps winning, over and over again.”
Overall: If you only read one book to commemorate the centenary of World War I, you do much, much worse than making Wake the one. The writing is almost impeccable, the characters are perfection and the overall portrayal of the quiet side to the aftermath of war completely believable. Absolutely stunning and worth every single tear.
23 January 2014Format:
Received from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review – thank you, Doubleday!Genre:
Literary fiction; Historical fictionPictured Edition Published:
by Doubleday on 16 January 2014
For a much more concise review (and lots of other fantastic WWI goodness), visit Ellie of Lit Nerd fame’s spot HERE on Centenary News