Wake by Anna Hope
Random House, February 11, 2014 (Historical Fiction)
My Rating: Outstanding adventure! (5/5)
“War wins,” he says. “And it keeps on winning, over and over again.” (p. 255)
Wake is the debut novel from Anna Hope, and in my opinion it is a stunning debut that takes a hard look at the realities of life after the war. It was beautifully written and the approach that the author takes, using the lives of three women, to examine the war was original and provided another perspective to view a momentous moment in history.
The novel is formed around the days leading up to the Unknown Warrior‘s procession through London in November 1920. The mood is grim. The country is still coming to terms with the war. Veterans are struggling to make ends meet. Women are mourning the loss of theirs sons, brothers, husbands, and lovers. Others just want life to move forward; they want the country to move on. The author shows these varying circumstances through the eyes of three different women.
Ada has lost her son, Michael, in the war. She has been struggling to cope with his death, made even more difficult with no details about how he died or a body to mourn. Slowly, her marriage is crumbling under the strain of both parents’ grief. Neither seem able to take comfort in the other.
Evelyn has lost her lover during the war. She continues to work despite her wealthy background, and interacts with soldiers on a daily basis at her job. Like Ada, Evelyn is struggling with her grief and has been moving through life numb. She envy’s her brother, a veteran of the war, who seems to be able to move on with his life, but like her, his competence is an illusion.
Hettie is the last woman, and she’s the youngest. Unlike Ada and Evelyn, Hettie simply doesn’t understand why the world hasn’t moved on. She wants to start living again. While her brother has come home broken, Hettie simply wants to ignore the after effects of the war.
Each of these woman’s lives is connected despite the fact that they never actually meet. All of them experience an awakening of some sort, and in that, the reader is offered some semblance of hope in a truly bleak landscape. In a short few days Ada, Evelyn, and Hettie will all be changed, and in this, I think the novel is very aptly titled. Each woman “wakes” to a realization, and while each learns and accepts something different, I think it can stand in for the many grieving the losses from the war.
For me, what was powerful about this book was the author’s choice to focus mainly on women after the war. Women didn’t fight the war, but they certainly had to deal with it when the men came home.
“I see so many women here,” she says, “and they are holding, all of them. Holding on to their sons or their lovers or their husbands, or their fathers, just as surely as they are holding on to the photographs they keep or the fragments of childhood they bring with them and put on the table here.” She gestures with her hand. “They’re all different but all the same. All of them are afraid to let them go. And if we feel guilt, we find it even harder to release the dead. We keep them close to us; we guard them jealously. They were ours. We want them to remain ours.” There’s a silence. “But they are not ours,” she says. “And in a sense, they never were. They belong to themselves, only. Just as we belong to ourselves. And this is terrible in some ways, and in others…is might set us free.” (p. 206)
Both Ada and Evelyn are holding on to their men, they do not see themselves as separate. It’s as if life has stopped for them now that Michael and Fraser are gone. Even without wanting to, Hettie finds herself bound to the men changed by the war, her bother and the mysterious Ed that she meets. However, I think attending the procession of the Unknown Warrior allows them all to realize that they are separate entities from the men around them; they are responsible for their own lives and their own happiness. And I think this realization says a lot about the nature of grief and the ability to move on, and perhaps why some are not able to move on.
Ultimately, Wake was a stunning novel. It was harsh and beautiful at the same time. War was not romanticized here, but treated respectfully. This was a thought provoking read and I know that it is one that will stay with me.
I know I’m always recommending Simone St. James (obviously because her books are awesome) but the melancholic tone of Wake immediately put me in mind of St. James’ books. St. James’ books are also all set in post-WWI England and tackle many of the same issues found in Wake. Her latest book is Silence for the Dead.
The narrative thread that focused on Evelyn put me in mind of Jennifer Robson’s Somewhere in France. Evelyn, like Lily, is from a wealthy and well-to-do family, yet decides to break convention. For Lily, the outcome is decidedly more uplifting; however, by the end of Wake, I think that Evelyn has finally made the first step in moving forward.
If you liked the tone of Wake, I will lastly recommend Helen Humphrey’s Coventry. Harriet, a widow from world war one, reminds me of both Ada and Evelyn from Wake. It was beautifully written and showed the realities of post-life war as England moved towards another one.