There is no shortage of novels set in World War I or World War II. Those two conflicts, along with the Viet Nam War, defined most of the 20th century. The collapse of colonialism, the Cold War, the rise of America as a world power; so many things can be traced back to the wars and their aftermath. You'd think that over time those books would all start to blur together; that there wouldn't be anything new or different that could be said on the matter. And sometimes it does seem like the same story told over and over again in an endless stream of arrogant generals, miserable soldiers, and grieving mothers and widows. But sometimes an author takes a new approach to the subject that takes the reader to a part of the well-traveled path that is less well known.
Anna Hope manages this feat with her book, Wake. The story takes place three years after the end of
World War I. It follows three different women, all of whom lost something in the war. Ada, the grieving mother; Evelyn, the woman who's lover never returned; and Hettie, a young girl whose brother has come home from war physically unharmed, but emotionally wrecked. The stories of these women are connected by their experiences of war, and through the lens of the return to England of the Unknown Warrior (what we in America would call the Unknown Soldier). The perspective shifts from woman to women in the narration of the story, interspersed with the journey of the Unknown Warrior from a grave in the French countryside to a special resting place at Westminster Abbey.
The title seems to have two meanings. The most literal is that the entire country of Great Britain is having a wake for the Unknown Warrior as he finally returns home from war. This one soldier comes to symbolize all of those lost on fields of France and Belgium, and each person who watches the body in its ornate coffin travel by ship, train, and finally carriage to it's final resting place assign him meaning based on the people they lost in the war. But I think that the title also represents the awakening that the women in the novel have as they learn to accept and move past the grief and depression that four years of war and its aftermath wrought. These women learn to let go, each in their own way, of whatever is holding them back from moving forward with life. Ada must learn to let go of the fantasy that her son is really alive, and find a way to reconnect with her husband. Evelyn must find a way to let go of her hopes for the future with her beloved Fraser, and take the first steps towards finding new love. Hettie, who works in a dance hall to help her family survive financially, wants nothing more than to move away from her mother's oppressive beliefs and find her first love. More than anything she searched for freedom and joy in a world where most of the men of her generation have returned from war damaged emotionally and physically.
The men in the novel represent various classes of soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike, and there are some fairly dark descriptions of the horrors they witnessed. Each has come home, but none of them are able to just pick up their old life. Hope does a good job with her portrayal of how youthful enthusiasm and patriotic action was twisted and mangled into fear, cynicism, resentment, and hopelessness. As the Unknown Warrior reaches his final resting place, so too does the book reach its end, and like the citizens of the UK, the reader is left feeling ready to move on to a future that is brighter than the tragic past.
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