Trio of Lon­don­ers in­ter­twined in har­row­ing de­but set in ’20s

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bev San­dell Green­berg

‘WAR is an ugly thing, but not the ugli­est of things. The de­cayed and de­graded state of moral and pa­tri­otic feel­ing which thinks that noth­ing is worth war is much worse.” These words by the late Bri­tish philoso­pher John Stu­art Mill epit­o­mize the per­va­sive at­ti­tude in Anna Hope’s har­row­ing de­but novel about Lon­don­ers strug­gling to cope af­ter the First World War. It is a mov­ing but flawed story about class, lone­li­ness and loss in the lives of three women dur­ing that pe­riod. Born in Manch­ester, Hope stud­ied at Ox­ford as well as at the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Arts and has ap­peared as an ac­tress on BBC tele­vi­sion. Her cu­rios­ity about the so­cial his­tory of 1920s Eng­land served as cre­ative fod­der for pen­ning this book. The novel takes place in Novem­ber 1920; though the war has ended two years ear­lier, it still im­pinges on the hearts and minds of the char­ac­ters. Het­tie is a young, at­trac­tive dance­hall in­struc­tor, her fam­ily’s sole sup­port since the war ex­pe­ri­ence ren­dered her brother mute. She hopes her job will help snare a wealthy gen­tle­man as an es­cape route from the grind­ing post­war poverty of her house­hold. At 30, Eve­lyn, a cold-hearted mem­ber of the up­per class, has en­dured sev­eral per­sonal losses due to the war. Though she once worked in a mu­ni­tions fac­tory, her lat­est job at the govern­ment’s pen­sion of­fice in­volves in­ter­view­ing dis­abled ex-soldiers and sub­mit­ting re­ports about them. Ada, mean­while, is a mid­dle-aged house­wife who spends her days ob­sess­ing over her only son’s un­ex­plained dis­ap­pear­ance in com­bat and ig­nor­ing her long-suf­fer­ing hus­band. While the women are ini­tially strangers, grad­u­ally their lives in­ter­twine be­cause of links to a sec­ondary char­ac­ter. The book takes place over the course of five days leading up to Nov. 11, the first Ar­mistice Day to com­mem­o­rate the sym­bolic burial of the Un­known Sol­dier at West­min­ster Abbey. This his­toric event serves as the linch­pin of the book. The novel is di­vided into five parts, one for each day. The suc­cinct, lu­cid nar­ra­tive pre­sents vi­gnettes about sig­nif­i­cant events in the lives of the women both dur­ing and af­ter the war. In tone, Wake bears some re­sem­blance to He­len Humphrey’s novel Coven­try about the Sec­ond World War. In­ter­wo­ven in the plot is an on­go­ing ac­count of the Un­known Sol­dier, in­clud­ing de­tails about its ex­ca­va­tion in Ar­ras, France and its even­tual jour­ney to Lon­don. The book’s aptly cho­sen ti­tle con­veys sev­eral nu­ances of the word “wake,” such as the rit­ual for the dead and the con­se­quence or aftermath. In ad­di­tion, the mean­ing of “wake” as in the sense of to emerge or cause to emerge from sleep is a ref­er­ence to the post­war awak­en­ing of in­di­vid­u­als from their numb emo­tional state. Through­out the novel, Hope excels at chron­i­cling the depth of suf­fer­ing by civil­ians. In one scene, we learn about Eve­lyn’s health prob­lems from her work in the mu­ni­tions fac­tory. “She was given the job of ex­am­iner, which meant she had to test the gauge of the cal­ico bags filled with TNT... Af­ter two weeks, her hair had turned a bright gin­ger hue... The yel­low­ness spread to her skin — first her face, then all over the rest... She hardly rec­og­nized her­self in the mir­ror.” Of the three pro­tag­o­nists, Eve­lyn is by far the most in­ter­est­ing. Though she doesn’t need to work, she does so as a means of con­tribut­ing to the war ef­fort. More­over, she demon­strates the great­est ca­pac­ity to change. Het­tie and Ada’s be­hav­iour, mean­while, comes across as stereo­typ­i­cal, the changes they un­dergo in­cre­men­tal. Nev­er­the­less, the book should ap­peal to those who en­joy read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and im­mers­ing them­selves in the at­mos­phere of that era. Bev San­dell Green­berg is a Win­nipeg writer

and edi­tor.

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