‘War wins,’ he says. ‘And it keeps on winning, over and over again.’Anna Hope’s debut novel Wake is set in the five days that lead up to Remembrance Day 1920, when the body of the Unknown Soldier was buried at the Cenotaph. It follows the interconnected stories of three women — Hettie, Evelyn and Ada — all of whom lost loved ones in the Great War, and had their lives significantly changed by it.
Hettie, a dancer at the new Hammersmith Palais, is grieving for her father, trying to understand her brother’s trauma, and struggling with a mother who disapproves of modern women and wants her to conform to tradition. Evelyn lost a lover in the war, has grown apart from her brother Edward, and struggles with her job at the War Office dealing with veteran’s pensions and the way it’s eroded her empathy over time (“Compassion is a swamp. It’s better not to get stuck in it”.) Ada, the oldest of the three, lost her son in the war and is troubled by the fact that, unlike other women she knows, she never received an official letter detailing how he died. Ada clings on to the hope that it all might be some sort of mistake, and is haunted by visions of her dead son.
As I said in my 2014 in Review post, Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria put it perfectly when she said that a synopsis of Wake might make it sound clichéd, but the execution absolutely isn’t. Hope devotes a lot of space to WW1’s cost for and impact on women, a theme I’m always interested in, and she writes in a way that reminds me that the unique human details of individual stories matter. In this sense, Wake made for a perfect companion to The Paying Guests and Cuckoo Song, two other excellent 1920s-set novels I read last year.
One thing I especially liked was how Wake dealt with gender expectations and the way they affected these women’s experiences of grief. Ada, Evelyn and Hettie all struggle with what’s expected of them as women — that they be self-sacrificing and push their own feelings aside in the name of being nurturing and caring. There’s a very memorable scene between Hettie and Edward, where a conversation about her new modern haircut reveals itself to really be about shifting gender roles and attitudes towards women:
Hettie shakes her head. She can feel anger now, boiling in her. She is angry with him. With all of them. All the men, waiting their turn. For those young girls. And those women. On their last legs. What happened to them, after that? Where did they end up?The story in question is about wartime rape, and it’s a story Edward shares for his own benefit and at Hettie’s expense. I was moved by Hettie’s anger, by her exhaustion, and especially by her resistance. She’s one of many women who have had enough of putting their own tremendous hurt aside to be a comfort to men, and in this moment she finds it possible to say no.
‘Why does it matter?’ she says. ‘Why does it matter if I cut my hair?’
‘Because you can never go back,’ he says.
‘I know it does,’ he says sadly. ‘But you can never go back.’
And he bends forward, putting his head in his hands.
She can hear him, breathing hard.
She should touch him, she thinks. This is her job here. She should reach out and touch his arm. Say something to make him come back to himself. Rouse him to his manhood somehow. She thinks this, but she is angry, and this anger is a fierce, clear thing, and she does not.
‘I didn’t want to hear that story,’ she says.
I also appreciated the novel’s acknowledgement that grief has more than one shape, and that both its distinctiveness and its commonality matter. Ada attends the Burial of the Unknown Soldier with her friend and neighbour Ivy, who has also lost a son. The circumstances of Ivy’s loss are different from Ada’s, but their relationship and the act of sharing experiences — more than the Cenotaph ceremony itself — make them feel less isolated and prove healing for both women. Earlier in the novel, Ada visits a Spiritualist in the hopes of finding closure about her son; in another scene I found very moving, she tells this woman that in all these years nobody has asked her to simply talk about her son. Again, this simple moment of human kindness and connection between two women is shown to be powerful. Here’s what the woman tells Ada in return:
‘I see so many women here, and they are holding on, all of them. Holding on to their sons or their lovers or their husbands or their fathers, just as surely as they are holding on to the photographs that they keep or the fragments of childhood they bring with them and put on the table here.’ She gestured with her hand. ‘They’re all different, but all the same. All of them are afraid to let them go. And if we feel guilt, we find it even harder to release the dead. We keep them close to us, we guard them jealousy. They were ours. We want them to remain ours.’ There’s a silence. ‘But they are not ours,’ she says. ‘And in a sense, they never were. They belong to themselves, only. Just as we belong to ourselves. And this is terrible in some days, and in others… it might set us free.’Wake’s most powerful moment comes when Evelyn seeks out a man who lived through a terrible wartime experience he has never shared with anyone before, and whose story turns out to hold the key to the mystery surrounding Ada’s son’s death. Evelyn listens to him talk; she takes in every last horrific detail. This is what she thinks as she leaves his house:
Standing here, now, in the cold street, Evelyn realises something. That this meeting was what she has been waiting for: for someone to share their truth with her. After four years of war, and two more years of ex-soldiers, day in, day out, this is what she has wanted; this is what she has sought. Someone’s truth. Not their bravery, not their anger, not their lies. And in four years of war, and two years of its aftermath, no one — not Fraser, not her brother — no one has shared with her their truth.Wake makes room for the fact that although human connection can help, and although there’s commonality in grief even if each loss is unique, there’s no one-size fits all solution, no single approach that will help everyone. There are only human beings, all trying to cope the best way they can. The novel makes no apology for cruelty for the sake of “truth” — instead, it acknowledges that some people will seek out terrible truths in the hope of finding closure and turn out to be wrong, while others yet will indeed find some semblance of peace in the knowledge. Some women will be able to make their peace with uncertainty and let go, as Ada does in the end; others, like Hettie, will resent being exposed to horrors they won’t be able to erase from their minds for the sake of other people’s feelings. None of these strategies are inherently better than any others.
And yet now she has heard it, now she knows that somewhere, upriver in this city, is her brother, this man who ordered Rowan to fire on his friend. Now that this truth is inside her, a part of her, it is not diamond hard and gleaming as truth should be, but shadowed, rimed in fear and sweat and murk and grime. There is no elevation in it, no answers, and no hope.
Reading Wake took me back to my thoughts about why we tell and listen to terrible stories (or why we don’t), which I touched on when I wrote about novels like An Untamed State or Rose Under Fire. My only answer is that sometimes we find solace in both the telling and the listening, and sometimes we need to spare ourselves and others. It’s important to talk about this with compassion and respect for different ways of coping: Wake does this by showing that Evelyn’s determination to listen to Rowan’s horrific truth isn’t inherently voyeuristic, even if it doesn’t bring her the peace she hoped, just like not sharing this same truth with Ada is not cowardly. They’re different human beings who need different things in order to make peace with unspeakable losses.
The last thing I want to talk about is the resolution of Evelyn’s storyline; as I can’t really do this without spoilers, please skip the rest of this paragraph and the next if you mind. This is one of those cases where I want to take great care to make sure I don’t end up sounding like I’m writing off one type of story when I express my desire to see more of another. I have strong feelings about the idea that romantic storylines inevitably undermine female characters (which I’ve written about at length in the past), so the following is definitely not me going down that road and dismissing the ending Evelyn does get. With that out of the way—
I like romance, and I really like reading about how it’s possible to form a new meaningful connection after you’ve suffered a great loss without being required to pretend the person you lost means less to you than they actually do. The present never erases the past, and our hearts are bigger than we tend to acknowledge. Having said that, it seems very clear to me that “woman recovers from grief by finding love again” stories are much more at risk of becoming single stories than “single lady leads happy, fulfilling life” ones ever will be. At the end of Wake, Hope cites Virginia Nicholson’s social history Singled Out as an important influence in her writing. As she says, Evelyn belonged to that same generation of women, many of whom moved beyond grief and built satisfying futures for themselves in ways that didn’t involve romantic relationships. I always welcome more stories about them, and so part of me really wanted Wake to be one. The answer here is of course not to go, “No more imagining happy romantic relationships for women like Evelyn!”, but (always and forever) to tell more and more stories about women and all the possible ways we can live meaningfully and happily. This is why my favourite motto — all the stories, please — will never get old.
They read it too: Eve’s Alexandria, The Book Smugglers, you?