Wake spans four days in 1920, Sunday 7th to Wednesday 10th November. Those days are significant as they were the days during which the Unknown Warrior was transported from a field in France to Westminster Abbey; an attempt to direct individual’s and the nation’s grief for those who had died and been buried (or so their families had been told) on or next to the battlefields of the First World War.
While these events are occurring, three women are going about their daily lives. Lives which have been impacted upon by the war and are about to changed further.
Hettie Burns, a dancer at Hammersmith Palais, is the first of these women we meet. She’s on her way to a private members’ club in the West End with her friend, Di. There, a jazz band plays and a man literally bumps into Hettie. She finds him disconcerting and later when he asks her to dance:
And it’s there; it’s in that first tiny movement – the flash of recognition. Yes! The rare feeling she gets when someone knows how to move. Then the music crashes in, and they are dancing together across the floor.
Hettie still lives at home with her mother and her brother, Fred. Hettie’s trying to push boundaries – her mother dislikes the fact that Hettie dances for a living and that her friend, Di, lives alone – but she seems bound to home due to Fred:
‘Take your coat off then, and carry these over for me.’
She does as she’s told, taking two plates and putting one in front of her brother’s place.
‘Thanks,’ said Fred softly.
Thanks he can manage. Please and thank you and sometimes, if you’re lucky and you ask him a direct question, yes or no. Anything else is a push. Ever since he came back from France. He speaks enough at night though. Cries and shouts out the names of men in his sleep. She can hear him through the walls.
Evelyn shares a flat with her friend, Doreen. Evelyn’s whole life is infected with the aftermath of war. One of the first things we discover about her is her reoccurring dream:
It begins like this: she’s in the sitting room of the house she grew up in, and she is reading a book. The doorbell rings; she marks her place and stands, moving across the carpet to the door. Now all she has to do is turn the handle and step into the hall, and Fraser will be there, waiting for her on the other side. Her hand is over the doorknob, and she is touching it, can feel the cool brass of it sliding into her palm; she presses down, the door swings open and –
She opens her eyes. She never gets any further than this.
Fraser was her fiancé.
Evelyn’s brother Edward was a captain in the army and Evelyn worked in the munitions factory, losing a finger. She now works in the army pensions office, much to the chagrin of her family, who are landed gentry. It is through her job that she’ll meet an army private who will affect her greatly.
Our third woman is Ada, married to Jack for twenty-five years exactly; their son Michael was killed in the war. They received the standard letter informing them of his death but were never sent a follow-up informing them where his body lay. The absence of this information, prays on Ada and she believes she sees him in the street, following young men who appear like Michael from a glance. When we meet her, she’s visited by one of the young men who survived and is now trying to make a living selling dishcloths and tea towels. At his request, she lets him into the kitchen and then this happens:
She goes over to the fire, gives it a quick stoke, then walks quickly behind him towards the drawer that contains her purse. She turns to see if he is watching, but he has his back to her, smoking in quick, jabbing drags. She slides the door open as soundlessly as possible, lifting the purse out, searching inside, when there’s a sudden noise, a sort of strangled cry. She turns to see him staring at the air in front of him, curled forwards, his whole body straining towards something she cannot see.
‘Michael?’ he says. Then his head jerks once, twice as though caught in a fierce current, and is still.
Ada drops the purse back into the drawer. ‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing.’ The boy flinches, shaking his head. ‘I never. I never said nothing.’
The novel’s structured in a way that means we move between each of these women’s stories, and, through them, the stories of the men. What’s particularly impressive about this is the way the men’s stories are gradually revealed though the women and how all three of these women become connected, although they are unaware of each others’ existence and never meet.
Alongside the impact of trench warfare on the men, Hope also explores the societal changes for women at this time – freedom, in all its guises – and how this causes tension between the generations. Evelyn, in particular, with her determination to have meaningful work alongside her astute political mind, is a particular joy in this area. On hearing that her cousin, Lady Charlotte is pregnant, she retorts:
‘What do you think you’ll have? Cannon fodder? Or the other kind? What shall we call it? Drawing-room fodder? Tedium fodder?’
Although Wake – as the title suggests – is not purely about mourning – it does end on a redemptive note, the story that hangs at the centre of it is bleak indeed and left me feeling broken. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the sign of a wonderful writer; I’ve already reserved a place for it on my best of 2014 list.
Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.