‘The land here, though still ravaged, looks more like countryside than the Somme, further south. Here signs of life are returning to the farms. Here, even after everything, fields still look like fields, like land where something still may grow‘.
Wake, Anna Hope, Pg. 113
Anna Hope’s debut novel is a well-executed and perfectly-timed story of the lives of three women in post-war London, coinciding with the five-day journey, from his exhumation in the fields of France to his final resting place at Westminster Abbey, of the Unknown British Warrior. I have read a lot of World War One fiction and non-fiction in my time and have a, somewhat, unhealthy obsession with the Great War that can only be described as a sheer inability to comprehend how such a world-wide massacre took place. Hope’s novel, however, takes a very interesting and unique view of the devastation of war, from numerous female perspectives, two years on, showing that the state of the nation is still in need of serious repair.
“This might make people feel better, and it might help them to mourn. It may even help me. But it won’t put an end to war. And whatever anyone thinks, or says, England didn’t win the war. And Germany wouldn’t have won either’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘War wins’, he says. ‘And it keeps on winning, over and over again’.
He draws a circle in the air with his cigarette, and it’s as if he is drawing all of the wars, however many thousands of them, all of the wars past and all of the ones to come’.
Wake, Anna Hope, Pg.294
Hettie, a nineteen year old ‘dance-instructress’ at the Hammersmith Palais, has lost her father to the Spanish influenza and the brother she once knew to shell shock. Evelyn, almost thirty, has never been able to get over the loss of her lover, Fraser, and works in a dead-end job for the government pensions office. Ada, from Hackney, is grieving the loss of her son who died in unknown circumstances. What is quite beautiful about this novel is how Hope intricately weaves in the lives of these three women, who are indirectly linked to one another, with the well-researched events of the Unknown Warrior’s journey across the English Channel.
For each of these characters the Unknown Warrior means different things. Universally, the unknown soldier was brought from the fields of France to represent the thousands upon thousands of men whose bodies were never found. The unknown soldier was thought to appease those families who were never given the comfort of a body to grieve. But Wake also highlights how even those families who were given the news that their loved ones had been found and buried in France were unable to visit and pay their respects due to the cost of such a journey.
For Hettie, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior in London provides a chance for her to try and make more of an effort with her shell-shocked brother. They both join the herds of people gathering for the event and share their first moment of understanding between one another since the end of the war. Ada also benefits from witnessing the arrival of the Unknown Warrior. One of the most poignant moments in the novel, for me, came when Ada is unsure whether or not to go and thinks that she would have preferred it more if they had named the body for what it was – The Unknown Soldier. It would have been more real, more relatable. However, Evelyn’s negative view was the one I found most interesting. In fact, I found her the most interesting character in the novel, along with her brother Ed.
‘After four years of war, and two more years of ex-soldiers, day in, day out, this is what she has wanted; this is what she has sought. Someone’s truth. Not their cheer, not their bravery, not their anger, not their lies. And in four years, and two years of its aftermath, no one – not Fraser, not her brother – no one has shared with her their truth.
[…]Now that this truth is inside her, a part of her, it is not diamond hard and gleaming as truth should be, but shadowed, rimed in fear and sweat and murk and grime. There is no elevation in it, no answers, and no hope’.
Wake, Anna Hope, Pg.275
Evelyn appears as the most rebellious of the three women. The one most likely to question why and to question how dragging an unknown body from France to England is going to help a nation in need of answers, in need of some sort of justification. However, I was a bit disappointed with how Hope chose to end the novel. It was so abrupt and seemed too unrealistically positive for characters who have suffered so much. As memoir’s, such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, show, such a catastrophic event, like the First World War, does not resolve itself after only two years of its ending. I also found that the characters of these three women could have been fleshed out a lot more. There are glimpses of female ‘hysteria’, suicide and the treatment of French girls by English soldiers that I would have liked to have seen explored more. Though I do understand that the primary focus of the novel was on the journey of the Unknown Warrior and this was extremely well-researched. In the Acknowledgements section, Hope has underlined some of the key texts she used when writing Wake. A couple of them really interest me, such as Helen Zenna Smith’s Women of the Aftermath and The Virago Book of Women and the Great War. I may have to treat myself to those!