She misses him. Fraser. Here in the shrunken hours of the night. She misses him still so much. Who is there to share her thoughts with? They wither inside her. She cannot even write them to him as she used to, can’t take a cup of tea back to bed and sit with a candle in the blackoutand think of him, trying to imagine where he is, what he sees. She cannot imagine where he is, because he is nowhere, he is nothing. All of the many tiny things that he was – the way he turned his head towards her, the slow breaking of his smile, the laughter in him, the roll of his voice; the way that he eased her, eased her – these are all gone. These are all dead.
Last year I couldn’t move on Twitter without seeing that someone was reviewing and reading Anna Hope’s Expectation. I’ve had such a ridiculous TBR that my copy is still languishing on the pile, but I wasn’t surprised to see the book become a runaway hit. I’d already fallen in love with her writing in 2014, when I read her novel covering the aftermath of WW1. Wake is a brilliant piece of historical fiction based around the real historical event, the creation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As he is taken from the fields of France, on his journey towards London, three women are linked by a mystery that is starting to unravel. As the Unknown Soldier is meant to provide closure to the war for the British people, these three women can’t look into the future while they are still inextricably linked to the past. Hetty’s wounded brother won’t speak, Evelyn grieves for her lost lover and Ada waits for confirmation of her son’s death, every day that she doesn’t get a telegram is another day he feels alive. We follow these three women over five days, while the selection of the Unknown Soldier is made and his journey towards Westminster Abbey begins. Slowly, a tragic tale of war’s aftermath emerges and links them all.
Hetty lives with her mother still, and her mute, shell-shocked brother. He can no longer work so Hetty has taken a job as a dance instructor at the Palais. It is there she meets an educated, wealthy, man who she quickly falls for. Every indication she has, makes her think he feels the same. However, there’s something she can’t put her finger on, a distance or sense of being unreachable that he has. Where does he go in his mind, when he seems distracted? Evelyn comes from a wealthier background, but feels equally lost. She’s working at the Pensions Exchange, where men returning from the front pass through, claiming benefit for their physical or mental wounds. Evelyn’s own loss is still raw and she feels detached from her parents who can’t understand her experience. She starts to become closer to her brother instead, because he is of her generation, also altered forever by his experience at the front. Ada is haunted by visions of the son she’s lost. She still sees him on the street and for a few moments she’s convinced he is alive. She also feels like she’s struggling alone, because her husband is grieving in his own way, becoming increasingly withdrawn. A door to door salesman attracts her attention and it’s so clear he has suffered from his war experiences and has struggled to find work. He exhibits some worrying symptoms but Ada recognises shell-shock. During one of his disturbed episodes he says the name of Ada’s son. Can she find out what happened to him? The tension really builds as the public spectacle comes closer, the ceremonial internment of this unknown young man can be a catalyst, allowing people to grieve for those whose bodies are lost forever on the fields of France or Belgium.
This is a very interesting part of history for me, because of the tumultuous social change that took place, especially for women. This period is where we saw huge adjustments and change within the aristocratic class. Some families had lost two generations, father and son or the ‘heir and spare’. This led to an estate crippled by death duties and having to be sold, or the new heir forced into reducing costs and servants, or searching for a more advantageous match – marrying American heiresses was sometimes the answer. These changes often brought less formality to the family. Women had worked throughout the war, in jobs usually done by men. There was tension on their return to the workforce, some women didn’t want to return to the home and men who couldn’t find work were reduced to begging or selling door to door. Crime was on the up and families were coming apart at the seams. There was a sense of the old order being overturned and old values like manners, morality and knowing your place being lost.
Finally I loved the significance of the title ‘Wake’ and it’s several meanings: to rouse from sleep; a ritual for the dead; the consequence or aftermath. All of these meanings are apt to the women in the book and their circumstances. This is the moment that the 20th Century finally dawned on people, and society woke from the Victorian era. Victoria’s reign had been so long that some people had never known another monarch, now there would be change from that Victorian order. The ritual refers to the Unknown Soldier, a representative of every man lost, but also representative of that death of the old order, and it’s sensibilities. The consequences of WWI were seismic, we had just fought the first mechanised war and it was hell on earth. Society did not know how to cope with the wounded who returned, whether the ranks of the physically disabled using wooden legs or metal masks to cover burns, or the shell-shocked, constantly trembling and lashing out when feeling threatened. Many ended up in institutions, because they were constant reminders of something younger people wanted to forget. The following few generations would be changed, with the war hanging over them like a giant monolith casting a long shadow. Why couldn’t people be allowed to forget? As the Unknown Soldier passes by someone comments ‘is this supposed to make it all okay?’ This is such a moving read and captures it’s era so perfectly it felt like being there, which isn’t an easy thing to achieve. I felt for each woman, but Evelyn particularly moved me. This is an exceptional piece of writing and a great introduction to this author’s work.
‘I’ll remember you he thinks, and as the gun carriage with it’s coffin and it’s dented helmet passes him by, he closes his eyes. Nothing will bring them back. Not the words of comfortable men. Not the words of politicians. Or the platitudes of paid poets.’
Meet The Author.
ANNA HOPE studied at Oxford University and RADA. She is the internationally prizewinning and bestselling author of Wake and The Ballroom. Her contemporary fiction debut, Expectation, explores themes of love, lust, motherhood, and feminism, while asking the greater question of what defines a generation. She lives in Sussex with her husband and young daughter.