Wake by Anna Hope
Doubleday (Random House), January 2014
E-book, 336 pages
Review copy from Netgalley
Anna Hope has written a gorgeous, intimate first novel in Wake, with an emotional poise that many more seasoned writers would envy. It reminded me most strongly - in character and style - of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, with something of Sebastian Barry's more elegiac novels mixed through. I was gripped from the epigraph, which simply gives definitions of the title:
1 Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep
2 Ritual for the dead
3 Consequence or aftermath
The book's central characters are caught up in this various experience of 'waking' - although which kind is often unclear. The multiplicity of an apparently straightforward word points up the contested nature of the difficult past that haunts, frustrates or controls them all.
The year is 1920, and the scene is London; the date is the 7th of November. It is a Sunday. Across the channel in France a party of men have just unearthed the remains of an unknown soldier from an abandoned battlefield. In five days time on 11th November, Remembrance Day, this nameless man will be reburied with all state and honour in Westminster Abbey, a token of respect to all the Great War dead. Three women - Ada, Evelyn and Hettie - go about their day, in as usual a way as possible.
Ada is the eldest, in her mid-forties, isolated and prone to seeing the ghost of her son in the street. She obsesses over the paltry amount of information the War Office provided about his death in 1917, and is increasingly divorced from reality, and from her husband and her friends. She spends long hours walking around and around the trees in the local park, bewildered as to how or why everything continues on as before:
She comes to a stop, the only figure on this patch of grass, where the trees are purple against the sky. The first lights are coming on in the houses alongside the park, shapes moving at the windows, the women at work in their kitchens... It is odd standing here, looking from the outside at the rhythms and routines of life. It seems suddenly so clear. Some contract has been broken. Something has been ruptured. How have they all agreed to carry on?
Evelyn's life has also been ruptured. She lost her fiance, Fraser, in France and one of her own fingers in a munitions factory accident, and now spends long days in an office fielding complaints from veterans about their paltry pensions. While Ada is limp and apathetic in her grief, Evelyn is apoplectic with rage. She subjects herself to a punishing isolation, frustrated by a post-war spirit that is by turns cheerful and elegiac but always, she feels, dishonest. Her pensions job allows her to keep the war fresh, keep her indignation high and maintain the sense of her personal grief as justified and unique.
Then there is Hettie, whom the war has barely touched. Her older brother Fred came back unhurt - if a little quieter than before - and she was only seventeen when it ended. Now she works as a professional dancer at the glamourous Palais dance hall, partnering single men for 6p a time. She is sympathetic to the ones with false legs or who barely say a word, but she is also frustrated and resents these encounters with damage. She is waiting for her life to start. Excitement comes on 7th November in the form of Ed - rich, insouciant, charming - a man she meets in a jazz club.
The three women are unknown to one another and will never meet, but over the course of five days their stories touch as Hope weaves their three strands together. For me the joy of the book was getting to know them, in the intimacy of their own thoughts, as the countdown to Remembrance Day forces them to confront what the war has done to them and what it has meant for everyone around them.
Although Wake is about the individual, and the individual's experience in the aftermath of war, it is also about what is shared. The five sections of the book are opened and interrupted by brief vignettes from the points of view of someone who has contact with the unknown soldier as he travels on his last journey. The undertakers who prepare the body; the little girl who first spots the ship coming in; a family who stand silent as the funeral train passes the bottom of their garden; an Irish veteran pressed in amongst the Remembrance Day crowds. The impression is of the cacophony of thought and memory that make up a nation's response to a shocking collective experience. The thought of all those minds focused on one nameless man is extraordinarily powerful.
The book begs the question: what is individual about the war and post-war experience? What is the status or value of a single grief when placed in the context of the grief of a nation? It is quite startling to pan across the crowds that line London's streets on 11th November 1920 through Ada's eyes, or Evelyn's, and consider what it means that their personal loss stands alongside hundreds of thousands of others. No wonder Evelyn is determined to keep Fraser seperate in her mind. In this post-war world the shocking thing is not the tragedy of losing a son or husband or brother or father, but how that tragedy doesn't give you any special status. Loss is ubiquitious.
Hope's decision to tell her story through the female point of view is important for me. We don't have access to the thoughts of the men in the story, only to how they are seen and interpreted by Ada, Evelyn and Hettie. Unusually, and wonderfully, the women's thoughts and feelings aren't subsumed or consumed in their contact with men. When Hettie discovers (rather predictably) that Ed is not as carefree as she thought, and is harboring some war-time demons of his own, she doesn't give herself up to support or heal him. She isn't the typecast innocent who will save him from himself. Or rather, she decides not to be. She consciously resists the part:
She should touch him, she thinks. This is her job here. She should reach out and touch his arm. Say something to make him come back to himself. Rouse him to his manhood somehow. She thinks this, but she is angry, and this anger is a fierce, clear thing, and she does not.
This is one of the moments that convinces me that while Wake is an emotional novel, it isn't a sentimental one. It sets out to explore a cliche - the emotional wreckage of national loss - but ends up being as much about fizzing anger as grief.
It's not really myth-busting. There are no challenges to what we already know about the War here: the experience of the Front, the shooting of deserters, the generation of women left behind and the veterans struggling to fit back into peacetime lives. You could say that Ada, Evelyn and Hettie are all, to a greater or lesser extent, types, standing in for a whole nation of grieving mothers, wives, lovers, sisters and daughters. Yet Wake is still an alternative to the received narrative.
It seems to me that cliche is inevitable when you write about an experience writ so large in the national imagination. Wake expands and fills it out, brings to life the reality that made the cliche in the first place. It's a familiar story but doesn't take itself for granted. Hope doesn't rely on the familiarity of the situation to carry us through; she isn't ever lazy. Every encounter with her fictional world is carefully delineated; it's made up of ordinary things and household items and all the furniture of London's streets, drawn very precisely and with great texture. The writing is quite excellent - understated and measured. Most importantly it makes you feel something, by showing it to you from a different angle. Now and then I was startled to tears.
I'll remember you, he thinks, and as the gun carriage with its coffin and its dented helmet pass him by, he closes his eyes. Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets. 'At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.' No. I will remember you when I pack my pipe. I will remember you when I lift my pint. I will remember you on fine days and on black ones. In the summer light, I will remember you.
I will remember you when I lift my pint? Indeed I will. A BBC adaptation is surely, and deservedly, on the horizon?