Don’t know where, don’t know when.
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
First Published: 2014
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2015
Hettie dances for a living. Giving up the job in Woolworths her mother was happy for, she has taken work dancing with men, only getting paid if chosen to partner. When she meets Ed, it seems things might finally be going her way. Evelyn works in pensions, assessing claims for veterans of the First World War and dealing with the lowered pay that the men will not accept. Her brother is always too happy, far happier than other men who served. Ada lost her son to the war but can’t quite believe it; she’s been in limbo for a few years now whilst her husband sits forgotten. In amongst these three tales is woven the homecoming of the Unknown Soldier and the situations of those who aid his journey.
Wake is stupendous. It’s full of character, emotion, the excellent results of research; this book is just wonderful.
In fact it’s the sort of book you wish would be adapted for film; the characters leap from the page – they are very real and the writing is such that you can picture it all well. There isn’t really much of your conventional plot, instead the novel is about the spiritual/psychological, post-war journey of the three characters, the way they deal with the after effects of the war.
The use of the three definitions of ‘wake’ speak of the book’s whole as you might expect. The characters are waking from a metaphorical slumber: Hettie from her situation at home, her strict mother and now silent brother; Evelyn from the drudgery of the everyday; Ada from her limbo. We witness the funeral and effects of the funeral, which could be termed the ‘wake’ of the Unknown Soldier. And we are seeing what’s happening as a consequence of the war, in the wake of the war. It is a rather powerful combination and the way it’s all done so that it takes studying to really see it, is rather stunning, too.
It’s this, the combination of the three definitions, that makes the book what it is. There is just so much to take in, to savour, despite the story taking place over only five days. Emotion is the be all here, and whilst the characters are each important, the culmination of the book, the homecoming of the unknown soldier is just as important if not more so in some ways. It’s the way Hope links the homecoming to the characters, the way she demonstrates to her readers, most likely people who did not witness the event and were not alive at the time, what an effect it could have; you will feel like you were there. It’s fair to say she shows the event from the point of view of those who organised it – what it was created to represent. The body could represent a person another had lost, the lost person who hadn’t been found. People could, likely often quite reasonably, believe it was the body of a loved one. It’s this symbolism that Hope delves into with such aplomb, and the emotion she stirs up… well, similarly to what I’ve said above, you can picture it in your mind, it’s as vivid as a film and as powerful as any visual could be. If you’ve ever wondered what this time was like, this book will show you, and as my repeated use of the word should intimate, it really is all about ‘show’ – there is no telling here even though there are details aplenty.
Back to the characters then; that well-known situation where you tend to prefer one character’s narrative to another? – Hope tackles that to good effect. You may still prefer one of the three but it has less of an impact because the author is constantly switching back and forth, never lingering too long; she’s spends time fairly. She also gives you reason to enjoy each narrative and to really get under the skin of Hettie, Evelyn, and Ada. She keeps them apart, narratively, so you can focus on them.
Hettie, who introduces us to old-fashioned dance halls and the PTSD from the viewpoint of the sister of the man; Evelyn who has been as involved as she could be in the war, lost a finger and rebelled against bad parents in a similar place as Hettie, the sister, but closer to her brother; Ada, parent, sometimes wife, who is seeing her dead son everywhere and can’t accept the loss without information. The thread of PTSD, as seen and experienced by the various characters, is rather valuable in its way. Of course not everyone will recover, but the author shows the glimmer of hope.
The writing? Gorgeous. Succinct but never lacking. Every word valuable whilst not important – it’s the whole that’s important but the pieces make it so.
It is difficult to do Wake justice; one just wants to say ‘read this book!’ but of course that would be an injustice. Suffice to say that if you want to learn about the aftermath of WWI, you should read this book. It may be fiction but the facts are everywhere. If you want to learn more about the time period in general, you should read this book. If you want to learn about women’s roles in society, the way they were reversed after a war which saw woman move from the home, you should read this book. If you want to read something powerful, vivid beyond your imagination, and unique in the way it deals with the subject, you should read this book.
Just read this book. There; I said it.
August 13, 2015, 2:07 am
You make this book a must-read with your enthusiasm and specific reasons for loving Wake so much. I’ve read a lot of HF about the aftermath of WWI in Europe, but little in the US, so I need to pick this up.
August 14, 2015, 2:49 am
It sounds wonderful! I think the years following World War I are really interesting, just in terms of how rapidly the world was changing in that time and how many aspects of their lives and traditions people were having to reassess.