This is the first novel I’ve ever read by Lesley Glaister and when I finished, I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her before. Set in one of my favourite historical periods, during and after WW1, this novel was evocative and moving. The author clearly has a deep understanding of the period and the rapidly shifting society her characters are living in. Her characters are fully rounded, with depths to get lost in and the effects of trauma to unravel and understand. This is an exploration of the effects of war and loss on our two main characters, Vincent and Clementine. The scars are both physical and mental, halting their progress as they try to move forward and making it very difficult to be who they truly are. When they, quite literally, bump into each other a strange relationship emerges that will have a haunting resolution. I could see these two people in my mind’s eye and I found myself thinking about them, even when the book was closed.
Clementine was a hands on during the war, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse close to the front. Her boyfriend Dennis had proposed and he didn’t want her to interrupt their lives. He didn’t fight, being a doctor he could claim to be needed by the patients in his area, so he wanted their lives together to start. Clem wanted to be part of the war effort, so along with her friend Gwen she ‘ran away’ (Dennis’s words) and became part of a medical unit. She wasn’t just taking temperatures either, her stomach is strong enough to be in the operating tent, helping to hold patients down during amputations and disposing of mangled limbs. The author’s depiction of working in the medical tents is vivid and gritty. I was able to imagine the struggle to keep wounds clean in the squalor and sick men comfortable on camp beds crawling with lice. The description of Clem’s hair stayed with me, tied up out of the way, but greasy and alive with lice. I could feel her desperate need to wash it, and the shock she feels when the doctor, Powell, finds hot water and washes it for her. I found that image so romantic, because he’d realised what she most wanted at that moment and provided it for her. He washes her hair with such kindness and a gentle touch, I almost fell in love with him myself. They have a deep and immediate connection, so Clem knows she must write to Dennis and explain what has happened.
However, before Clem can write two things happen. She realises she is pregnant and tragedy strikes, when the unit is bombed both Clem and Powell are injured in the blast. Clem has a picture in her brain, like a flashback, of a stove pipe from the boiler embedded in Powell’s back. She knows in that first second that she has lost him. Only days later she miscarries alone in the toilets, and this scene was so real and so emotive I cried. She’s lost the love of her life and now the last part of him has gone too. Numb and shocked she returns home and seems to sleepwalk into the same situation she left behind. In the next section of the book she is married to Dennis, who doesn’t know about her wartime experiences. They live above his doctor’s surgery and they have a child together, a little boy, but she grieves Powell and their little girl. I felt she was living behind a mask, being who she thinks she has to be rather than who she is. The ambivalence she feels towards her son is well represented, because she still grieves for that first child. There are physical signs, written on the body, that she has Edgar. The silvery stretch-marks mark the time she was pregnant, yet there are no signs of her daughter. It’s like she never existed.
Vincent meets Clem when she’s visiting her sister-in-law Harri. Feeling stifled, Clem goes out for some air and keeps walking, until she’s miles away and not sure of how to get back. She takes a quick breather at a bridge and steps into the road, just as a biker comes along. As he swerves to miss the crazy lady stood in the middle of the road, he loses control of his bike and crashes. Clem strangely sees something of Powell in him at that first glimpse. Actually, Vincent is a product of the same terrible war that left Clem bereft. For Vincent it left him wounded physically and emotionally. He has a facial disfigurement that means he wears a mask, literally and figuratively. Vincent has been left in a very reduced position by the war. His marriage has failed and the job he was assured would still be his when he returned from the front, has been taken away from him. How can a man who looks like him, be the face of an insurance company? He has nowhere to live, so he’s latched onto a woman called Doll, who runs a local pub. She’s easy with her favours, and Vincent takes advantage of this to lodge upstairs. He can’t cope with how much he’s lost and wants to replace it, with visions of marriage to Doll and being the welcoming host from behind the bar. He doesn’t love Doll, but they get on and there are worse places to be. Similarly, he notices how well dressed Clem is and thinks she might be manipulated into paying for his bike’s repairs. In the end, she visits him at the hospital and offers to pay, leaving her details and the possibility of a connection between them. They are both suffering the effects of trauma and might sense that shared perspective on the world. If Vincent is willing to settle with Doll, might this be another opportunity for him? What exactly can their relationship be?
I was worried for Clem, who is vulnerable. However, I was worried for Vincent too, he has lost so much and is vulnerable in his own way. He’s not one of the ‘glorious fallen’ heroes, and unlike Clem’s husband doesn’t have any status here at home either. He’s a reminder of exactly how ugly and terrible war can be, and nobody wants to remember. Dennis certainly doesn’t want to hear his wife’s tales of war. The author pitches him perfectly, a man who chose not to fight, but likes to remind everybody that he was fighting to keep the families of those soldiers fit and healthy. He represents the old order of things, with class barriers and men as head of the home. His need for control extends to his sister as well as his wife; there’s one right and respectable way to be in the world. When her friend Gwen visits for tea, he makes it quite clear that she’s not the right company. Not only did she get Clem to run away to war, but now she’s clearly having a lesbian relationship. His way of dealing with the world is on the wane though and he felt to me like a dinosaur that doesn’t know it’s extinct. He hasn’t been through the seismic change the others have and can’t identify with them. War has changed a whole generation of people around the world. I felt for Clem, who is part of this changed generation. She knows the future is different, but she’s chained herself to the past. Is it too late?
This was so beautifully written, with well-chosen words that create rhythm and take the reader on a journey through their senses. This explosion of sights, sounds and sensations bring an immediacy to the prose. This is not some long winded description of what a battlefield was like, it is the sounds and smells as they happen. I felt like I was there:
‘Where was the fear? She searched herself as she listened: sometimes the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, rapid and snippy like the keys of two vast, duelling typewriters battering out threats to each other on a paper sky; crumpings like oil drums being crushed by massive fists; a whistling followed by the soft whoomph of a missile striking, then virtual silence, then the battering of the typewriters again’.
The author truly does show us what’s happening and the contrast of passages like the one above and the quiet, clock-ticking, stillness of Clem’s home is so effective. No wonder Clem takes to walks; she needs to breathe. Every character is flawed, but no one is irredeemable. Through Clem she shows how women were restricted by society and I love that Gwen and her girlfriend had chosen a different path. Most poignantly, she shows how war interrupts lives and takes away people’s livelihoods, opportunities and in Clem’s case, even her creativity. I think this is one of the best books I’ve read on the aftermath of trauma. The author has so much compassion and empathy for her characters and because of that, so does the reader. I didn’t want this book to end and that’s the biggest compliment a reader can give.
Meet The Author.
Lesley Glaister is a fiction writer, poet, playwright and teacher of writing. She has published fourteen adult novels, the first of a YA trilogy and numerous short stories. She received both a Somerset Maugham and a Betty Trask award for Honour Thy Father (1990), and has won or been listed for several literary prizes for her other work. She has three adult sons and lives in Edinburgh (with frequent sojourns to Orkney) with husband Andrew Greig. She teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Published by Sandstone Press on 7th May 2020