Amongst the profusion of novels about the Great War, Wake stood out for me from the rest because it is about the aftermath rather than the fighting. The spine of the narrative is the journey of the body to be entombed in Westminster Abbey as the ‘Unknown Soldier’. I have visited the tomb but had not considered its selection, the post-war politics and social consequences of choosing one soldier’s remains rather than another. Anna Hope handles a delicate topic – isn’t everything to do with war emotionally-delicate? – with confidence. Wake is a powerful novel by a debut author.
There is something unsettling about the first scenes where un-named soldiers drive out into what was no-man’s-land, not knowing where they are going or why. They are directed to dig up the remains of a soldier: unidentified soldiers dig up the remains of an unidentified victim. Four bodies are laid out, not so much bodies as heaps of remains. A Brigadier-General closes his eyes and rests his hand on one of the stretchers, this body is put into a thin wooden coffin. The three not chosen are put into a shell hole at the side of the road, a chaplain says a short prayer, and then re-buried. The chosen one is taken to London.
Three storylines run parallel to this central spine. Hettie and Di are dancers at the Hammersmith Palais. Charging 6d for a dance, Hettie is skilled at spotting the injured soldiers who are disguising the lack of a limb, she is skilled at matching the rhythm of her dancing to theirs. Dancing is the bright spot in her life; her home is under the shadow of her father’s death and her brother’s shell shock.
Evelyn works in a Government department, her job is grey, her surroundings are grey. She is no longer close to her brother who returned from the war seemingly uninjured but is emotionally removed from life. Every day she deals with former soldiers, struggling to make a new life, and each soldier she sees reminds her of her lover who died in the war. She wants to move on from the war but feels that she, like everyone else, is trapped in a cycle of grief, disability, guilt and memory.
Ada is still grieving for her son, a grief which puts distance between her and her husband. Her solace is her neighbour Ivy, also grieving. Then one day an ex-soldier knocks on the door, wanting to sell her dishcloths, and something happens which sends her to a medium.
All are drawn to the streets of London on November 11th, 1920, looking for catharsis.
‘Wake’ by Anna Hope [UK: Black Swan] Buy now
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