Five Days in November, 1920:
As the body of the Unknown Soldier makes its way home from the fields of Northern France, three women are dealing with loss in their own way: Hettie, who dances for sixpence a waltz at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who toils at a job in the pensions office, and Ada, a housewife who is beset by visions of her dead son. One day a young man comes to her door. He carries with him a wartime mystery that will bind these women together and will both mend and tear their hearts.
A portrait of three intertwining lives caught at the faultline between empire and modernity, Wake captures the beginnings of a new era, and the day the mood of the nation changed for ever. – From Goodreads
My rating: ★★★★
My Thoughts (may contain very minor spoilers):
This book was an emotional read; incredibly sad at times, but also ultimately uplifting.
It brings the awful sense of loss caused by war to a personal level, focussing on how that loss impacts on the families of those who went to fight, and so often never returned home.
The hurt and uncertainty of those who waited for sons, brothers, or loved ones – sometimes never knowing for certain what fate they met – is the focus here, as we follow three women, Hettie, Evelyn and Ada over the course of five days in November 1920.
The loss and change resulting from the war is apparent as various characters reflect on the way life used to be – Hettie remembers she and her brother sharing a night at the theatre, Evelyn thinks of leisurely time spent with Fraser, the man she loved, and Ada recalls her young son’s love of football.
The lives of these seemingly unconnected woman are drawn together by far-reaching effects of war, and they are knitted together in a subtle but clever way. Some seek truth, while some seek change, and each of the women has a certain strength which develops throughout the novel.
Michael’s story is especially poignant, and serves to evoke the horrors of being a solder on the front line – so young, so overwhelmed. It is a powerful read; you can almost see the endless mud of the trenches, and sense the fear of those young men.
While I was aware of the Unknown Solider, I knew very little about the origins, and so I found the whole narrative of the actual retrieval of a body, identity unknown, to stand for all those lost in the war, very enlightening. The progression of the Soldier’s remains with a variety of escorts across France and back home to Britain was quite fascinating and thought provoking – I loved the way it tied in several anecdotes from all manner of minor characters who happened to witness the procession, which called to mind their own memory or significant moment of the war.
While it’s a sombre topic because it’s all too real, the book ultimately has an uplifting, more positive tone towards the end, as the Unknown Solider is bought to his final resting place, witnessed by countless people lining the streets of central London on 11th November 1920 (a scene which is vividly recreated) and each of the central characters seeks out something for the future – acknowledging their losses, whilst also accepting that they themselves are still alive. The final scene in particular struck a chord with me, and I really did enjoy the book overall.