WAKE by Anna Hope
“The men crouch low, and with their gloved hands, as best they can, they clear the mud fromÂ the body. Â But it is not a body, not really; it is only a heap of bones insideÂ the remains of a uniform. Â Nothing is left of the flesh, only a few black-brown remnants clinging to the side of the skull.”
Review by Roger Brunyate Â (FEB 2, 2014)
One of the aspects of this impressive debut by Anna Hope that makes me raise my hat is the effectiveness with which she handles its secondary thread. In italics interspersing the main story a page or two at a time, are little vignettes as British officials exhume the body of an unidentified soldier from the battlefields of Northern France, prepare it for a new coffin, and take it with due solemnity to its final resting place in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. The vignettes, and the story that they enfold, span a five-day period leading up to November 11, 1920, the second anniversary of the Armistice. The First World War is over, but what has become of the survivors?
Each of the vignettes contains an anonymous figure — from a soldier assisting with the disinterment to a war widow bringing her child to watch the procession — real and dimensioned enough for the reader to feel for them, even as the camera moves on. They are emblems of countless stories that might be developed in their millions all over the country, although Hope has chosen to focus on only three. Three women, all coping with loss, all seeking a way to move forward. There is Hettie, a dance hostess at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother has returned sound in body but damaged in his mind; she is looking for her life to begin, but the normal patterns have all been disrupted. There is Ada, a mother in her forties, the loss of whose son Michael has caused an estrangement between her and her husband. Unlike other parents, they have no information about their son’s resting place; is it possible the Unknown Soldier might be Michael himself? And there is Evelyn, an upper-class girl who has tried to bury herself in a munitions factory and then in a government office after the death of her boyfriend; for five years now, she has not permitted herself to love, and hardly even to live.
Hope juggles the three stories freely in short episodes spread over the five days. She also sketches some connections between them. Evelyn’s brother, for instance, a captain in the army who has come back with his own problems, turns out to have connections with both Hettie and Ada’s son Michael. There were times, I admit, when I was conscious of almost a romance-novel artifice in the writing. But no sooner would I register this than something would come along that was truly fine. To give but one example, there is a scene when Ada goes to consult a medium to find out about Michael. Historically, it is apt; the First World War brought a huge revival of interest in spiritualism. But Ada’s meeting with the medium turns out to be something else entirely, totally human and deeply moving.
This is a novel that is perfectly titled. Wake, as in the wake of a ship, or turbulent aftermath of some great passing. Wake, as in the ritual for the dead. And Wake, as in to awaken from sleep and dreams. All perfectly realized in this deceptively unpretentious novel. As always, I thought of a number of other books while I was reading. I almost immediately put aside the obvious comparison to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series; Anna Hope has more penetrating ambitions. I certainly thought a lot about Sarah Waters’ Â The Night Watch, another rich exploration of the lives of women, this time in the shadow of the Second World War. But the comparison that increasingly stuck with me was of a different order entirely: to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. And that is a high compliment.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 18 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Random House (February 11, 2014)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Anna Hope|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
- Wake (February 2013)