Although there had been earlier wars, some of which spanned multiple continents and spread beyond the confines of the battlefields, World War I is the first “total war” that went global. While young farmhands and factory workers bled on the killing grounds of the Somme and Ypres, hundreds of miles away, their families endured rationing of goods so that “their boys” could enjoy even a modicum of comfort in the trenches. After four years and tens of millions dead or wounded, the horrors of World War I did not end with the November 11, 1918 armistice or the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles. For those who had worked in munitions plants while their lovers rotted in No Man’s Land, the war still continued to take its terrible toll on their lives.
In her debut novel, Wake, British writer Anna Hope looks at the lives of three women during the five days in November 1920 between the disinterment of four “unknown soldiers” from battlefield cemeteries in France and Belgium, where the British Army had fought for possible future selection as the representative for the collective British dead, and the chosen corpse’s burial in Westminster. Wake is a snapshot of immediate postwar life in Great Britain and the experiences of the three women, Ada, Evelyn, and Hettie, represent the spectrum of grief, frustration, and vague unease that a great many British women felt during the war and its immediate aftermath.
Wake is divided into five sections to match the five days leading up to the November 11, 1920 entombment of the “unknown soldier.” Hope moves quickly between the three characters, developing their personalities in piecemeal fashion. Ada, the oldest, is about to celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary, but she and her husband are still grieving over the death of their son. The world has become a bitter place, tasting of ashes, and she wanders in a daze through large stretches of the novel, still unable to come to terms with her son’s death. Evelyn, a 30 year-old spinster who lost her beau during the fighting, is perhaps the most intriguing of the three women. Born into a wealthy family, she nonetheless goes to work in a munitions plant before obtaining work in pensions administration. She is sharp, rather bristly on occasion, and in her can be seen a fount of hidden rage and frustration with the endemic sexism of early 20th century British society. Hettie, the youngest at 19, has lost her father to the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918-1919. She earns a pittance instructing men on how to dance and she is perhaps the most naïve, or maybe relentlessly optimistic would be a better descriptor. Yet despite their very different social stations and attitudes toward life, each character is developed well. Take for instance Evelyn’s observation of wounded veterans who plead for more assistance:
As her first man makes his way over toward her desk she gives him a swift look. Amputee. From the way his right trouser leg is pinned it looks as if it has been taken off all the way to the hip. There’s no false leg; the stump was probably too small to fit against. He takes his place on the seat before her. It’s a game with her, to guess a man’s rank before he speaks. In this post-khaki world, the extremes at either end of the scale are easy to spot, and have remained, so far as she can see, as rigid as they ever were, but the middle ground is different; it has not yet settled. The temporary gentlemen are the trickiest: those who were promoted from the ranks for their service in the field and are now stuck between society’s strata. Temporary gentlemen: such a mean-spirited little phrase; still, it just about sums it up. This one, she is sure, is no gentlemen, temporary or otherwise; from his dress and bearing, he is a private through and through. (p. 83, iPad iBooks e-edition)Evelyn’s job, evaluating the claims of disabled vets, forces her to view these former soldiers with suspicion, as it is her duty to force them to take as little pension as possible. This shoddy treatment of returning veterans has parallels with the broken promises in other countries, such as the “Bonus Army” of 1932-1933 in the United States. Hope’s introduction of this sad historical moment into her novel is understated but no less powerful for it not being a focal point of the novel. What is also interesting is to see how casually social status matters. Although mostly a foreign concept to Americans such as myself, social class certainly plays a role in how these women deal with the aftermath of their losses. Whether it is a former second lieutenant berating Evelyn because his benefits were lowered after three years or another expressing surprise when she bought him a drink, these social differences make for some interesting character interactions.
Yet despite the often-wonderful character descriptions, Wake suffers from some curious weaknesses. Although each character for the most part has a full character arc, there were times that the transitions between each woman felt disjointed, jolting me out of a few thematic reveries that I had about the nature of loss and suffering during war. This is especially true toward the end, as the chosen exhumed body finally comes to rest. These scenes of transportation, set off from the main narrative by italics, feel estranged. Their serious, morose actions, however, do not receive quite the depth of scene development as those directly involving the three women. Furthermore, as the body is led to its final resting place and the three women are in its proximity, there is little actual interaction, literal and metaphorical alike, between the women who are witnessing the arrival of the body. In the end, these are three tales of postwar grief that remain too separated for their full range of emotion to have its full effect.
Despite these shortcomings, Wake manages to be a fast-paced, absorbing, character-centered novel whose explorations of the effects of World War I on the lives of three British women bring to life the “Home Front” accounts of a century ago. It may not be a perfect novel, but even in its flaws, there is much to recommend it to readers, particularly those curious about the Home Front of World War I.