November 1920 - and the body of an unknown soldier is being transported from the battlefields of France to a state funeral in London that will commemorate Armistice Day and the ending of the Great War. Will this help the nation stop mourning the past and start looking forward to the future, or will it just open barely-healed wounds?
For the five days of the Soldier's journey, we follow the lives of three women of different ages and walks of life - Ada, a middle-aged mother who still hopes against hope that her only son may be alive somewhere, and even believes she's seen him on the streets near her home; Evelyn who's mourning her dead lover, hoping to find a new purpose through work at the Pensions Office helping those wounded in the war; and Hettie, the youngest, a professional dancer at Hammersmith Palais, immersing herself in the world of nightclubs and jazz in the hope of finding someone who will take her away from her humdrum life. All of them have been deeply affected by the War and can see others around them picking up the pieces of their shattered lives and moving on, but can't seem to do it themselves. Through their lives moves a young soldier with a tale to tell of the horrors of the battlefield, linking Evelyn's brother and Ada's son.
Wake is a brilliant debut novel, deeply moving, well-plotted and engrossing, about the aftermath of war and its effects not only the combatants directly involved but a far wider circle. At the heart of it lie the stories of three very different women trying to cope with the emptiness of their lives. Along the way there are 'nods' to a lot of 'issues' - women's wartime munitions work, army discipline, the treatment of injured soldiers, the horrors of the trenches or the desperate measures forced on the inhabitants of the war-ravaged countryside - not as a churning out of facts and statistics but as part of the backdrop to life, helping to create a feel for the era.
There are four plot lines to keep up in the air and moving, but the author manages the balancing act really well, giving them equal attention and not letting any of them falter. The writing style is sparse, letting the characters speak for themselves through words and actions; at times the dialogue says more then several pages of description could have done.
Wake isn't published till January 2014 but as I had an early review copy, it seemed fitting to read over this last weekend in the run up to Armistice Day - at the time of year when it's set.
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - DoubledayGenre - adult historical fiction, WW1