Published: 29th October 2020
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
This was an exquisite, slow-paced, historical novel that moved me so much. It was a window on both individual, and collective, grief. It also explores the psychological rehabilitation process which is my day job, as a counsellor. Regular visitors to my blog will know that I am fascinated with this period of history depicted in novels as varied as Emma Donoghue’s recent novel The Pull of The Stars and in the last few years Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, Adele Park’s Spare Brides and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. All deal with a different aspect of this period of huge social change. The nation is grieving, for lost sons, husbands and brothers but also for a time of innocence now lost to them. Young women struggle to find husbands as the policy of neighbours fighting together meant villages losing whole generations of men. Distinctions between the classes come tumbling down as men from all backgrounds fought together for a common purpose. Many estates were crippled by death duties, often for two generations at once, and men who never expected to shoulder the burden of a family estate were suddenly dukes, but without any means. Institutions like the debs ball seemed trivial and outdated, with many new heirs marrying money from abroad bringing Americans and their new money into the ranks. Others lost their estates altogether and had to consider working for the first time ever. Women who had held the fort, while the men went to Europe to fight, did not want to return to the home and wifely duties. Even men who had jobs held for them, faced a fight to get them back. Women were not the same, they’d been stretched and depended upon in wartime and wanted more equality at home, work and in the political system. The upheaval in our class system, in gender roles and working life is unimaginable. When set against the backdrop of national mourning and a worldwide flu pandemic we can perhaps imagine a little the seismic psychological shifts happening. On the plus side it’s a dynamic time, where the old order is overturned, people born in poverty or the wrong gender could change their lives because of the social mobility created.
We see these issues through the characters in Caroline Scott’s book and understand how some want to recover a lost past however unlikely it is, whereas others want to blank out their experiences and start again without memories or baggage. Scott starts her book with an epigraph from the tomb of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey. Also used as a focal point for Anna Hope’s wonderful post WWI novel Wake, the burial of this young man is full of symbolism. One man chosen from the many lost in France, to symbolise both those who died and those who would never be recovered or identified. His burial in the abbey would be broadcasted in cinemas and over 100,000 visited his grave to pay their respects in the next few weeks. In Durham, another anonymous young man is found using chalk to write on the flagstones in the cathedral. He is arrested and taken for treatment with Dr James Haworth who aims to slowly help his patient recall who he is and what has brought him to Durham. Named Adam Galilee by the police who found him, he is subject to many different methods, including covering the walls of his room with mirrors. They spend so much time talking and questioning, gently in case they force him into distressing memories. As Haworth observes ‘something strong within him is resisting recalling the pertinent parts’.
As a counsellor and writer I think a lot about the concept of ‘self’ and how it’s constructed, and I loved how Scott explores this in the chapters marked as belonging to Adam. He talks about how they ask him for a first memory and he knows they’re avoiding more recent times, despite there being a complete void where his time as a soldier is concerned. He knows they’re looking for a beginning to who he is and all he does know is that it doesn’t work like that.
‘It isn’t linear. That’s not the way it works. It doesn’t have momentum, or a narrative arc, and he doesn’t know where it starts. It surprises him, if they are doctors of minds, that they can’t understand that’.
I thought this was so clever, because it questions the very nature of the self. Are we ever one fixed set of characteristics or are we fluid and ever changing? If any of us are asked to describe who we are we tend to come up with a list of things we love to eat, listen to, wear and watch. As if the self can somehow be captured and solidified by these objects. When asked who we are, we refer back. So what happens when we cast our minds back and there is nothing there to hang on to. All Adam can do is ‘be’. To exist, try things and see what sticks. Rebuild from now. Maybe this is preferable to remembering before, the trauma and the hell of the battlefield? It was beautiful to see Adam gain a love of nature, whether rediscovered or a new appreciation it has a healing quality. He also has a talent for sketching and he captures the nature around Fellside, as well as the repeating a young woman’s face, which may be a clue to who he is. Supporting him through this self-discovery is James, himself a lost man due to his war experience and very much a wounded healer in these circumstances. His marriage to Caitlin is struggling under the weight of grief, I wanted him to share his war with his wife, but also understood his need to forget.
Just like the unknown soldier, Adam is a cipher for every young man lost in the war. When James puts his picture in a national newspaper, he hopes that someone will recognise him – what he didn’t expect was that three people claim that Adam is theirs; Mark, Robert or Ellis. Caroline weaves the women’s narratives into this tale so we see what war has done to the women left behind. My heart ached for them all and I wanted Adam to belong to each of them in turn; to be Celia’s son, to smooth away the rough edges of Lucy’s tough existence, to absolve Anna and bring resolution to her life. Of course he can’t be all things to all people. This is an intricate balance of viewpoints and Scott weaves a beautiful tapestry from them. Through these people we see a snapshot of post-WWI Britain that is truthful. Art is able to move beyond the patriotism and glory, to see the real cost of war. This is an incredible piece of work. Haunting and complex, a society laid bare emotionally through the tale of a warrior, unknown by name and rank.
Meet The Author
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the First World War, in the challenges faced by the returning soldier, and in the development of tourism and pilgrimage in the former conflict zones. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in south-west France.