Please note that in America, this book is called The First of July.
On 1 July 1916 indescribable horror took place in the muddy shell-holed fields and waterlogged trenches of the Somme. And yet, within these 390 pages, Elizabeth Speller brings the beauty of her prose to bear on this most infamous of war days, depicting the path that led four young men to that particular place at that particular time.
One of our young men, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, is French and his dream in 1913 is to steal a boat and let the Somme carry him to the sea and a new life beyond. The transformation over the coming year of his home on the Somme, not to mention of Jean-Baptiste himself, is profound and focuses our attention on this one small area of France. The other men are from further afield – Harry Sydenham, a young English minor aristocrat who wants nothing more than to live in New York with his new bride; Benedict Chatto, a painfully sensitive organist and musician from Gloucester who sees colours where others hear musical notes; and Frank Stanton, a London shop worker whose principal ambition is to buy a bicycle and, much further down his list, marry a respectable girl (not a suffragette).
They’re not alone, of course. We also get to know their friends and families, most particularly Harry’s relationship with his young French stepmother, Isabelle, and Benedict’s friendship with Theo, a man who knows all about making false promises, and ends up in the airforce, leaving Ben to fight on foot. For me, the most intriguing relationship is between Jean-Baptiste and Dr Vignon. This story could have filled its own novel. But although the four main stories are largely separate, there are places where they touch and pleasure comes from spotting those moments, some of which are less obvious than others.
The stories all converge on the Somme on 1 July 1916. It’s a progress that’s inevitable and you can’t help but become more and more fearful as you get to know and like these characters and know that it can only end in one place. The statistics mean that not all will survive. Maybe none at all. The last third of the novel takes place on that day, in and around the trenches as well as in no man’s land. Elizabeth Speller writes so beautifully and her descriptions of the fighting and the fallen as well as the confusion and the fear are so stunning and memorable that at times it is painfully harrowing. Her meticulous research also means there are things to discover, such as the soldiers who won’t shoot enemy messenger dogs and instead risk their lives to rescue them, or the cycling soldiers who have to carry their bicycles on their backs because the terrain is so unsuitable.
The four stories are distinct in character. Three are told in the third person, while one is told in the first. None are especially outstanding individuals, none would have been prepared for what lay in store, but what they have to deal with and the heroism with which they greet it, in the face of sheer terror, is presented so wonderfully and poetically by Elisabeth Speller that it is impossible to read without feeling great sadness and tension and love. I read At Break of Day over the Remembrance weekend and day and it was even more powerful for it.
Elizabeth Speller has previously written about the impact of World War I on one character who fought in it, John Emmett, in The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, both novels I recommend enormously. At Break of Day confirms my belief that Elizabeth Speller is one of the finest writers I have ever read and I would urge you to discover the beauty of her words for yourself as well as the poetry of her vision of this painful period in our past that must not be forgotten.