By Ekta R. Garg
Rated: Bypass it
Two years after the end of World War I, three British women deal with life in the absence of men special to them. Each of the women proceeds with her responsibilities, but all of them feel imprinted by the war and its aftermath. As the English government prepares for the formal burial of the Unknown Warrior, the women wait for the day with trepidation, guilt, and melancholy. Debut novelist Anna Hope gives readers this ambitious idea that doesn’t really take off and instead peters out by the end in the book Wake.
Hettie works as a dance instructor, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her mother doesn’t argue much, however; Hettie surrenders half her pay every week to pay household expenses. The same household where Hettie, her mother, and her war-returned brother, Fred, live. Hettie loves her brother but Fred has uttered barely a dozen words since coming back from combat, and Hettie feels deeply the burden of running the house. When she meets a mysterious, dashing man one night in a club, she feels like her future could improve. But something about the man troubles her.
Evelyn spends her days behind a desk in the pensions office, where she meets returned soldiers every day trying to make the case for their financial needs. Her own brother made it back from the war, but her sweetheart didn’t. She spends every day trying to fight the depression caused by losing the love of her life, and the fact that her relationship with her brother has begun to unravel doesn’t help.
Ada’s son went to war with naïve visions of God and country, but when he doesn’t come home Ada and her husband, Jack, learn to spend their time tiptoeing around one another and the memories that disturb them. Ada desperately wants to re-establish her marriage, especially considering she and Jack will soon celebrate 25 years together. But pining for her son supersedes everything else.
The women deal with their particular circumstances the best they can. Their grief becomes exacerbated by talk of the upcoming ceremony, and they try to resolve their grief with the idea of a party bringing home the remains of a soldier. How can the government believe that erecting a national monument will atone for the deaths of those close to them?
Author Anna Hope treats this tragic subject with a surprising lack of emotion. Hettie, Ada, and Evelyn shed their share of tears and spend copious amounts of time thinking about those they lost, but Hope doesn’t really convince readers that any of her characters feel these things deep inside where loss renders one speechless. Hope doesn’t seem to feel them herself.
At one point Evelyn considers her situation, encapsulating the entire book:
“And she is alive. For what? She has endured. Is enduring. Killing time.”
Indeed, while Hope spent a considerable amount of time researching the book (and the research shows in the passages dealing with the preparation of the body for the burial,) she didn’t seem to give as much care to her characters and their individual situations. She expends effort to create suspense and develop a sense of sympathy, but neither works. With three main characters, readers can expect (rightly) that all of their stories will intersect at some point. When that finally occurs, however, readers will feel as Evelyn did: that they’re killing time.
Also, and more surprisingly, Hope writes about British characters in London and lives in that great city herself, but her tone and approach to the entire story feel squarely American. Perhaps the use of present tense throughout the entire book is an attempt to bring an immediacy to the topic and to follow current literary trends. Not only does Hope undermine the seriousness of her own backstory, but also she manages to write unconvincingly about the British experience during this period in history. A mean feat, no doubt, but certainly unintended and counterproductive.
I would recommend readers bypass this book.