Hannah Loxwood is struggling to make ends meet. The year is 1916 and her husband George is in the trenches, fighting in a war that too often comes perilously close to home, not just in the dreaded telegrams or in the return of men unrecognisable from the men who left, but also in the zeppelin raids that terrorise London time after time. With two small children, Hannah has moved into the home of her unhappy sister Jen and her lecherous husband, always under scrutiny. Hannah is lucky to avoid employment in the factories unlike her closest friend Dor, with her poisoned yellow hair and skin, and instead manages to find work in a cafe. Money and food are short, life is difficult, but a light sparks in Hannah when she makes a friend in Daniel Blake, a mender of ships and a frequenter of the cafe. Initially, it looks like Daniel is courting Dor but it’s soon clear that Dor is nothing to Daniel but an excuse for him to grow closer to Hannah. Quickly, and in the most guilty of circumstances, Daniel and Hannah fall in love.
Based on a true story, Before the Fall is a beautiful and, perhaps not surprisingly, painful evocation of this most difficult of times. The war itself is rarely touched upon, instead it is a dark shadow that has impacted on everyone’s life, making itself known through divided families, bombs, women in the workplace and in pubs, food shortages, letters from the trenches, upset children, white feathers, limbless men. Hannah and her two children long for letters from her husband, George, uninformative as they are thanks to censorship, and although we rarely meet George ourselves through the course of the novel he is not to be forgotten, perhaps even more so as he becomes a source of guilt.
London is wonderfully portrayed, especially during the times when it is under attack. The factories, streets, pubs and homes, with many people living almost on top of one another, are vividly painted. Dor is a fabulous character, adding colour to the wartime grey that characterises Hannah, at least in my mind. Hannah’s thoughts and feelings are transparent throughout, thanks to the first person present tense narrative that guides us through her story, but Daniel is less open and this is heightened by the switch to third person prose for the chapters dealing with his life. This inevitably, I think, draws us closer to Hannah but it does mean this reader at least kept Daniel at arm’s length.
From the very first page it is clear that this is not a love story that is likely to end happily for anyone concerned in it. Hannah is a sympathetic character. She is also very young and this life that she finds herself in – poor, husbandless, dependent on family with a father that always confuses her with her long dead sister, hungry – is not an easy one, exacerbated as it is by the general lack of freedom that women endured in those day, especially those whose husbands were absent. Everywhere there are judging eyes. Everyone is judged – men aren’t exempt, examined as they are for clues to why they are not in France. But a woman who falls in love with another man while her husband is fighting in the trenches for his king and country?
I was moved by this love story. Its ending was not a surprise but that didn’t make it less powerful. My only issue with the novel is that I, too, found it very hard to forget the poor husband! I found the character of Daniel difficult to like. The tragedy in his past life failed to make me see him as more than a secretive man who could do young Hannah and her children great harm. I felt Hannah deserved better. I think her husband did, too.
Before the Fall is a beautifully written and compassionate novel, demanding to be read in just one or two sittings. I think it will hold its own very well among the World War 1 novels that are being published in this commemorative year.