Wake by Anna Hope

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Paperback review by Ali Hope

Anna Hope’s remarkable novel Wake is newly out in paperback, and I urge anyone who has not read it to get themselves a copy. I read this novel in hardback, something like eight months ago, it was May, the sun was shining and I began it sitting in my garden. As I began to read of the soldiers who in 1920 were tasked with the retrieval of the remains of the Unknown Soldier, the birds were in good voice, as if singing a little eulogy of their own.

Wake is such a brilliantly compelling, engaging novel that a little over twenty four hours later I finished it. I love the title; it is so beautifully apt – the word wake with its associations of awakenings, endings and aftermaths. So there I was about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in May, sat in my garden with a cup of tea at my side, contemplating the word wake, and all that it encompasses. The book has stayed with me ever since, it’s a book I shall keep to read again, and I rather envy those who have yet to discover its beauty.

I’ll remember you, he thinks, and as the gun carriage, with its coffin and its dented helmet pass him by, he closes his eyes.

Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets.

Set over five days in November 1920, Wake is a novel that concerns the aftermath of war, once the guns have fallen silent, and the world begun to move slowly and haltingly forward. There are so many areas of grey that a war on the scale of the Great War leaves no one undamaged, landscapes are changed, those left behind often as hurt as those who bear more obvious scars. Leading up to the ceremonial interment of the remains of the Unknown Soldier, Wake depicts the fractured lives of three very different women, all of who have been hurt by the war: Ada, a middle aged woman, married for twenty-five years, mourns her son Michael, who she sometimes sees in the street, and of whom she is unable to speak to her husband. Evelyn, approaching thirty, lost her lover in the war; now she works in the war pensions office, meeting damaged, embittered men, unaware of the changes the war has had on her brother. Hettie is just nineteen, living at home with her cross mother and her shell shocked brother. She works as a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, loves jazz, and envies her friend’s gorgeous new dress.

Outside, the rain lands quietly, the slurry of dead leaves breaking its fall. Ada lies awake, thinking about her son. About wherever he lies in France and whether it is raining there.

One day a man comes to the door of Ada’s house selling dishcloths. Ada is soon made aware that this man knew her son, but before she can ask him anything he has disappeared. The story of this war damaged man draws the stories of these women and their men together, gradually unravelling a tragic and haunting story. On the day when thousands of people line the streets of London to watch the procession of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier, the stories of these women come together brilliantly. I am very conscious of spoilers here – so I am not going to say too much about the stories of these women. There is though a heart-breaking authenticity to their stories though that makes the characters feel very real.

“And whatever anyone thinks or says, England didn’t win this war. And Germany wouldn’t have won it, either.”

“What do you mean?”

“War wins.” He says. “And it keeps winning, over and over again.”

Anna Hope’s writing is really very good indeed; there is a deceptive simplicity to it that belies the depth and poignancy of the stories that this novel tells. Anna Hope has given a powerful voice to these forgotten women, and to the ordinary unremarkable men who came back to an uncertain future.

Clothes hangers clatter as he takes his jacket out, He gets dressed every morning and goes out even though he hasn’t anywhere to go. Hasn’t got a job. Not since coming home from France, two years ago in December, just after their father died. For weeks after his demob, he didn’t leave the house, just sat there in their father’s armchair in the parlour. She would come back from work at Woolworths and he would still be in the same position as when she had left. Often, the dim light and something about the way he sat made her think it was her dad, come back from the dead. It gave her the creeps. But Fred just stayed there, hour after hour, as if that old armchair might tell him where to get a job.

Thousands upon thousands of women must have had similar tales to tell in the aftermath of this dreadful conflict. When we think about war it becomes easy to think in terms of allies and enemies, in a sense, black hats and white hats – yet Anna Hope shows us that things are never so simple, how could they be?

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Ali blogs at Heavenali, reviewing books from a bygone era as well as some more recently published titles.

Anna Hope, Wake (Black Swan, London, 2015) 978-0552779463, paperback, 416 pp..

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