'Wake', by Anna Hope was a story I did not want to read. World War One... three women ... the tomb of the Unknown Soldier? ... Surely this book would leave me an emotional wreck? But my curiosity got the better of me and I began to read.
It's 1920, London, in the aftermath of the Great War. There is heartbreak everywhere: again and again, people's lives prove more difficult to heal than missing limbs and damaged bodies. How do you move on when so much has been left behind? The story of three main female characters, each struggling to come to terms with the loss of someone: son, lover, brother, is compelling reading . Ada, Evelyn and Hettie have yet to achieve a complete recovery, have yet to face, head-on, the sadness that has interrupted their lives. For them, a moment of catharsis comes with the commemorations on Armistice day, 1920, when the body of the Unknown Solider is finally laid to rest, bringing London to a standstill amid crowds of onlookers.
Author Anna Hope takes many recognisable images from the war; the statue of the Virgin and the baby Jesus dangling from the bombed Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières; groups of faceless soldiers gathered on a nameless river bank; crowds gathering to welcome the return of the Unknown Soldier, and pumps life into them. She inflates the historical until it balloons before us and forces us to reconsider it. So, there's a nurse, delaying her return to England to escape a marriage that she doesn't want; a farmer, happy to lose an eye if it means returning to his beloved fields, two soldiers, clinging to one another in the darkness. There is death yes, but more often than not, this novel tells the story of those who did not die; focusing instead on the survivors left behind.
But survival, in Hope's novel, it's a tricky thing; streaked with disappointment and tasting of bitterness. These pages are filled too with countless soldiers' sad stories: Irish, French, Scottish and British, all present to recount a memory from the war they experienced in France; men who came home, feeling their luck, like a weight about their necks. They are but mere glimpses of human experience, yet Hope manages to thread them all together to form an historic tapestry, a panoramic warscape, where the dust has blown away, and only their voices remain.
We witness a mother, going through a box of mementos, her young son's short life reduced to a few, paltry keepsakes. Hope describes her feelings and thinks her thoughts with such honesty, that we believe every word. Surely this is just what it felt like for millions of women, each one searching for hidden messages, hidden meaning inside a torn brown envelope that they hoped would never be delivered to their door.
Anna Hope steps inside the lives of those who lived at this time in history, walks in their shoes and gives voice to their passion and torment. We witness Ada's mental anguish, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of her son. Time has moved on for the world, but not for the relatives and loved ones of the soldiers who've died. Some find escape in the company of strangers and the darkness of dance-halls; others in the visions of sightseers and clairvoyants, but there is only so much running a person can do: demons must be faced in the end.
This of course touches on the title of the novel, which has many meanings, all of which apply perfectly to the story. Of course it refers to waking the dead, something that was denied to the families of the many soldiers who did not return home and whose bodies were so destroyed that they were never found; and the act of being awake, alert and alive to the world around you. But it also relates to the reawakening of those who were left in a sort of limbo, with the coming and going of war; those who felt, that in some strange way, the letting go of pain was in some way an act of disloyalty. As readers, we will these characters to move on, to heel.
So do not fear this book. It won't torment you or be unbearably sad, because this is a book about life. The characters are wonderfully real, from their individualistic way of speaking, to their complicated relationships. They have more in common with you and I than you might expect. The author breathes life into these long dead people; allowing us to step into their shoes, feel how they felt, and challenging us to imagine what life was like, one hundred years ago, when innocence was lost and madness prevailed. Now that was a frightening thing indeed.