— Wake by Anna Hope
London, post World War I, 1920. Three women, each marred by her own disparate loss, try to come to terms with what life after war really means.
Always a fan of historical fiction, I was immediately drawn to this book. On first impression, Wake‘s cover gives one the illusion that this book is a typical war love story. Wrong. Hope’s richly enthralling story is so much more than that, as it explores the complicated layers of human grief, casting a very real and honest light. The three women of the novel are all from different walks of life with different stories. Hettie is a young dance instructress at the Palais. Ready to start living again (she has lost her father to the Spanish flu and her brother to shell shock), Hettie can’t understand why the rest of London won’t move on with her. It is not until she meets a wealthy yet strange young man at an underground dance club that her eyes truly open to the often inconsolable scars left by the chaos and destruction of war and that, perhaps, it isn’t a door so easily closed. Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange coming into contact with thousands of men looking to claim benefits from mentally and physically debilitating wounds. Embittered by the loss of a lover, she has little empathy to offer them and looks to find comfort in the company of her brother. But her brother hasn’t been the same since his return from the front, and he may be just as lost as herself, if not more so. Finally, Ada is beset by visions of her son, convinced he is still alive without solid proof otherwise. As a result, she finds herself becoming further estranged from her husband.
Wake focuses on the emotional turmoil of these women’s lives while at the same time weaving in the journey of the Unknown Soldier, from his excavation in France to his arrival on Armistice Day to be entombed at Westminster Abbey. The brief interludes where the reader witnesses the body’s journey to London are stock full of symbolism, giving the reader a sense of the necessity for this healing act, to console and bring the people together again.
The book develops over a span of only five days, expertly braiding the women’s stories together, uniting them in a gradual revelation that is beautifully fulfilled by the end of the book, linking Evelyn’s brother to Ada’s son. Hope does fairly well in balancing her four interchanging plot lines. Evelyn and Ada are heartbreakingly, and sometimes brutally, real in grappling with their grief. Evelyn is not easy to love, and I often found myself put off by her abrupt manner and lack of sympathy for the plight of others, such as when a man in the office experiences “shell shock,” and she simply waits for the fit to pass without offering any sort of help. But that is also the point. Hope isn’t trying to make these characters one-dimensional or easy to love—they are complicated. Experiencing and dealing with loss is not an easy task and neither does it have one unanimous response, as we are all well aware of.
The one thing I find that Wake falls short on is its characterization of Hettie. Unfortunately, she is less compelling than Evelyn or Ada, possibly because of her disconnect with loss. I often found her falling into the role of a secondary character, especially after she meets Evelyn’s brother, Ed, who manages to “steal” the scene with his tortured mannerisms, plagued by memories of war. I definitely would have liked to see more of Hettie interacting with her own brother, which would have only helped to solidify the book’s predominant themes and allowed Hettie to have more of a voice. Aside from this slight lapse, Hope allows her characters to speak for themselves with engaging dialogue and indicative actions.
A brilliant debut, Wake is in the end well researched, vividly illustrating time and place for the reader. London is depicted as broken yet vibrant as people pick up the pieces and begin to allow themselves one dance or one fleeting smile. Hope offers no easy solutions in her book, but she does end with a hopeful promise of the human ability to “wake” in war’s aftermath and carry on.
I definitely recommend picking this book up. It has the potential to resonate with its readers and stay with them long after the last breath-taking sentence, which leaves you to your own conclusions of what will become of these true-to-life women.
5 out of 5 book thumbs up
Review copy provided to me by McClelland & Stewart
Wake by Anna Hope, published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, © 2014