In November 1920, the Unknown Warrior is brought home from the soil of France and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. He has become the symbol and focus of a country damaged by war. Three women are among the many who have to pick up the pieces – Ada’s son is dead but he haunts her waking and sleeping hours; Evelyn has turned her back on her wealthy family and works in a Pensions Office helping the wounded and the shellshocked to move their lives on a little. Her glamorous brother has returned in one piece but he is not the same; Hettie sells dances for a sixpence to the survivors of war, vulnerable to their cares, worried for her brother who has returned from the Front barely able to speak or move. All three make plans to watch the procession to Westminster Abbey but, as Wake continues, we learn that their stories may have more in common than they know, beyond the connection of war and loss that binds the country.
Wake is Anna Hope’s debut novel and it is a wonderful read, very difficult to put down and to forget. It focuses on the five days leading up to the burial – the time taken by the Unknown Warrior to make his journey. The narrative moves between the three women’s lives, following them at work, in the home and mixing with others, showing how different the women are in social status, aspirations and age but also how closely they have been brought together by the events of the last few years and, more especially, their aftermath.
Evelyn and Hettie are directly affected by the returned soldiers, helping strangers practically as well as seeing the results on their brothers. We also learn of their own experiences in the war, most memorably working in munitions factories. Ada, on the other hand, is a portrait of someone who has to rebuild herself – and her marriage – after the loss of her son. It’s a very different story but all three characters are distinct.
The impact of war is shown through the stories of women but its devastation on the lives of the men who fought it underlies everything, including the mood, but most especially in the figure of the Unknown Warrior. Throughout the novel are brief sections which allow us to trace his journey, most movingly in his discovery among the anonymous dead. Wake is in itself, as its title suggests, an act of remembrance.
Wake is an extremely moving and beautifully written novel but it is also very satisfying. The structure works so well, moving everything forwards to the streets of London on Armistice Day. There is a movement forwards and a purpose to these stories. It is upsetting in places, especially as Anna Hope allows us to get to know these three women so well. Ada’s story in particular is tragic as is the mystery that ties all these lives together. It is an engrossing read and consuming. There is a real need to discover what it is that has happened as well as see through the return of the dead soldier. I think many people, like me, will find they are unable to put the novel down unfinished.
I am so pleased to be kicking off the Blog Tour for Wake – Anna has kindly answered my questions and the interview will be posted on 20 January. Updated to add the link to the Blog Tour Interview.