Book review: Wake by Anna Hope

Two years after the Great War ended, Britain ceremoniously buried its Unknown Warrior and for the first time the nation was able to mourn collectively.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 6th February 2014, 9:00 am

As the title of Anna Hope’s incredibly powerful and moving debut novel implies, the symbolic events at the Cenotaph marked a time of endings, aftermath and new beginnings.

Covering five days in November 1920, we witness the body of an unnamed British soldier, plucked from his grave in northern France, make the poignant journey home and at the same time follow the lives of three women, each coping with loss in their own way.

There is Hettie, the teenager who dances for sixpence a waltz at the Hammersmith Palais, Evelyn who buries herself in work at the pensions office but can’t hide her bitterness and middle-aged housewife Ada, haunted by visions of her dead son.

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Their disparate London lives are linked by a mystery which only becomes clear as the author slowly and tenderly unravels a multi-layered story of dislocation, despair, desperation… and redemption.

After a year as a dance instructress at the famous London Palais, 19-year-old Hettie Burns has ‘a compass for men.’ It takes her only two minutes to work out exactly what they are like, ‘whether they are married, sweaty-guilty, sneaking out for an evening alone’ or, sometimes, just plain sweet.

But Hettie is restless and has ‘a hunger, ragged and raw’ for something more out of her life. She lives at home and financially supports her widowed mother and her shell-shocked brother Fred who came back from the war unable to work and ‘useless.’

Evelyn Montfort shares a flat with a friend in London much to the disapproval of her wealthy mother who lives in her grand Oxfordshire home surrounded by servants and parties of visiting relatives, all ‘pink and smug and smiling.’

Volatile, erratic and cynical, Evelyn is consumed by bitterness after the death of her fiancé Fraser and tries to find purpose in a relentlessly depressing job which involves assisting queues of broken and crushed former soldiers.

Ada Hart, meanwhile, is still haunted by the death of her only son Michael in 1917. She sees him everywhere she goes but husband Jack, who has not even mentioned their son’s name for three years, seems blind and deaf to both her sightings and her overwhelming grief.

But when a young veteran comes to Ada’s door, he brings with him a wartime enigma that will bind these women together and both mend and break their hearts…

Wake is a staggeringly good first novel, packed with soulful insight, universal emotions and those intimate small details which add more depth and meaning to a picture than the brutal sweep of a broad brush.

Hope writes with a beguiling and effective simplicity, punctuated by moments of arresting intensity and subtle mood changes. Her characters are flawed, potently real and perfectly drawn representations of the women left behind and the terrible human legacy of destruction and loss.

We feel their frustrations, their fears, their anger, their search for closure and their hopes that one day they can stop looking back.

The war itself is played out offstage – a harrowing tale told only by survivors, out of sight but never out of mind – and its effect is all the more powerful.

The central role of this impressive, intelligent and absorbing novel is undoubtedly ‘the peace’ … a time for the country and its people to come to terms with the past, take a deep breath and step out if not into a brave new world, at least into some kind of future.

An exceptional story from an exciting new talent.

(Doubleday, hardback, £12.99)