I’ve not read a lot of literature related to the First World War (apart from Birdsong, which is just perfect), but of course, this is the year to propel me to do so.
Anna Hope’s Wake takes place in 1920, as Britain is recovering from the war. It follows three very different women – Hettie, Evelyn and Ada – over the course of five days leading up to the burial of the Unknown Soldier.
Hope deliberately chooses three very different women to give us three very different takes on the First World War. Hettie is young and knows a freedom unlike those of the women who came before her, and she is unable to see, at least at the beginning of the novel, why the war has had such a devastating impact on her brother, who served, and her mother. She is idealistic and naive, and I found she came across as selfish, but realistic. It takes an encounter with the broken Ed to jolt her into realising what’s happening around her is important.
Ed also causes a change in the life of his sister, Evelyn, who is broken in her own way. Working at the pensions office, Evelyn encounters veterans every day, veterans who feel they have been let down the country they lost friends and limbs and their sanity for. Surrounded by such bitterness, Evelyn finds herself unable to let go of the past enough to move on. Despite her dour nature, Evelyn was my favourite character – a hard worker, an independent thinker, a woman who has sacrificed.
Like Ada, who paid one of the biggest sacrifices of the war – the loss of her son. Haunted by memories of the past, Ada is unable to live fully in the present, always thinking her son may turn up one day. Her story is the story of thousands of mothers from the First World War, although we discover over the course of the book that her son was not lost in quite the same way as those other boys she knew.
The narratives of Hettie, Evelyn and Ada are intertwined with Hope’s fictionalised account (based on facts) of how the Unknown Soldier was selected and then transported from France to Britain to be interred at Westminster Abbey. This plot strand (which made me want to go and read more about the Unknown Soldier’s journey) deftly brings together the stories of the three women we follow, as we take a glimpse into their lives at a moment in time when they’re all heading towards the same occasion.
Alongside this, there are also another couple of strands which weave their way through the book, until eventually revealing a connection between the three women we follow. It’s cleverly done, and never overplayed.
Wake was an easy read – I got through it in three short sittings. It didn’t pack the emotional punch of Birdsong for me, but it’s still a very well done and powerful novel that gives an insight into how the First World War affected those left behind while the men went to the trenches. In this anniversary year, Wake is a good fictional introduction to an aspect of the First World War.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Doubleday. This did not affect my review.