1 Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep
2 Ritual for the dead
3 Consequence or aftermath
Wake is my third new First World War novel so far this year, and it is without doubt my favourite. The writing feels effortlessly beautiful and I was utterly captivated by the story.
It is set during the five days leading up to the 1920 Armistice Day procession as the Unknown Soldier makes his journey from the battlefield to his final resting place. This symbolic act of collective remembrance, mourning, and hopefully catharsis is at the heart of the book, giving a focus for the stories of three very different women all touched by the war. Hettie is a young dance instructor at the Hammersmith Palais, which sounds more glamorous than the reality. She lives with her disapproving mother and war-damaged brother. Evelyn works at the Pensions Office in an attempt to escape her overbearing mother, privileged background, and shattered romantic hopes. Ada is haunted by her son’s death during the war and the lack of information about what happened. Her marriage is fraying as her husband loses patience with her inability to move beyond the tragedy.
Hettie expresses frustration at the lingering of the conflict into peacetime too. She is young and wants something more from life, unhindered by the unemployed and injured ex-servicemen everywhere she looks: ‘All of them reminding you of something that you want to forget. It went on long enough. She grew up under it, like a great squatting thing, leaching all the colour and joy from life.’ She wants everyone to simply move on. It’s easy to sympathise with her but also to recognise the callousness of youth in her sentiment. Her own brother is barely going through the motions of regular life, which adds to her irritation despite her love for him.
Frustration turns into anger for those who find the style of the remembrance event offensive. The ranks of dignitaries lined up as heroes when they have risked little themselves smacks of hypocrisy to Evelyn. An ex-private she meets tells her that no one can claim to have won the war: ‘War wins’, he says. ‘And it keeps on winning, over and over again.’
It depicts an emotionally raw time. Despite two years having passed since the end of the war the healing has barely begun. The characters in the book show how moving forward may be possible, moving towards more hopeful and optimistic futures. Part of that is in facing up to and dealing with the tragedy that’s occurred. It’s tragic for Ada that she knows so little about her son Michael’s death. Evelyn loses her fiancé and with him her chance to escape the judgement of her stifling family, getting caught up in a cycle of self-punishment and loss.
But it isn’t all loss. And there is hope not bleak pessimism in Wake. Hettie is doing her best to grab the opportunities newly available to a young woman and break free from the suffocating roles assigned by society. It is not strictly proper to make one’s living dancing but she needs freedom and excitement. All three women are on the cusp of waking up from the heartbreak of war. Despite wearing scars that will last a lifetime their grief can be tamed, allowing them to unfreeze their lives.
Wake is a very moving portrayal of the impact of the First World War and how people attempt to live once it is over. I love the structure and the women’s stories, and I love how these stories interconnect without ever directly touching. The three definitions of ‘wake’ given at the start of the book encapsulate all the layers Hope has worked with in this superbly crafted novel.