1919, Britain, First World War, historical fiction, Louisa Young, post-traumatic stress, reconstructive surgery, romance, Somme, twentieth century, veterans
Review: The Heroes’ Welcome, by Louisa Young
Harper Perennial, 2015. 263 pp. $15
The Great War has ended only five months before, and Riley Purefoy bears its scars in the most obvious spot: At the Somme, part of his jaw was blown away. Reconstructive surgery has worked marvels, yet children flee from him, he can’t speak clearly, and must drink his tea from a brass tube. Nevertheless, his prewar sweetheart, Nadine Waveney, marries him, trusting to their mutual honesty and understanding to carry them through. No physical wound can obscure from Nadine the kind, courageous, caring man beneath, and she served as a nurse, after all–though she worries, to herself, whether he’ll ever be able to kiss her or make love. The newlyweds’ parents don’t know what shocks them most: Riley’s appearance, that the young couple married without telling them, or that they married at all. Isn’t it obvious Riley’s in no condition to be anyone’s husband or provider? And what of their class differences, since she comes from money, and he, from nothing?
Meanwhile, his close friend and commanding officer, Peter Locke, has returned from war outwardly whole but a psychological wreck, victim of what today would be called post-traumatic stress. He drinks constantly, has recurrent nightmares about the men he commanded who died in battle, and shuts himself away from his wife, Julia, and their toddler son, Tom. He’s a hard case, Peter, but Julia’s too shallow and self-absorbed to help him. Having sensed their growing estrangement during the war, she decided that she, and not the stress of war, must be the cause, and applied carbolic acid to her face as a beauty treatment. Naturally, she doesn’t get the results she wanted.
The juxtaposition of the two disfigured characters, one of whom can see inside himself and others, while the other sees only surfaces, is a brilliant stroke. It’s one of many in this excruciatingly painful, tender, lyrical, and, by turns, uplifting novel. All four main characters, plus Peter’s cousin Rose, a maternal woman who thinks her role is to pick up the pieces that others let drop, have well-drawn inner lives.
Nadine and Riley come across most clearly, and their wakening to one another and the world where beauty and love for life still exist makes for a satisfyingly real romance. For those interested in such things, Nadine means “hope,” and Riley, “courageous,” while Purefoy suggests the French for “pure faith.” (Contrast with the Malfoys of Harry Potter fame.) Nadine and Riley live up to their names, but only with struggle. Riley hates even the suggestion of pity and is so determined to accept nothing that could even remotely imply charity that he tries the patience of everyone who cares for him. As for Peter and Julia, they’re not finished with each other, despite what it looks like, though it take a while for even a glimmer of hope to show itself.
The Heroes’ Welcome makes difficult reading, at times. The grimness of Riley’s appearance and prospects hit hard, early, putting the reader in the parents’ and in-laws’ places, seeing him for the first time since his wound. Peter’s nightmares are duly horrific, and his behavior hard to take. But I sensed a wave of warmth, compassion, and zest for life gently lapping at the characters’ pain, so that their suffering is by no means all you see. As Nadine observes about art treasures she visits on her honeymoon to Italy:
This educational voyage, arranged by a most knowledgeable guide, was peeling mud and sorrow off her soul. She remembered suddenly, one morning, wounded soldiers arriving from the battlefields after days of travel caked in mud, in a dried-out carapace that had to be chipped off them . . . a clay shell like a gypsy’s roasted hedgehog, and God knows what wounds and damage you’d find inside. Every day the cities and the paintings exposed to her long, deep unities of humanity, strong living channels that emerged from the depths of the past like crystal streams bursting from a cavern.
Such lyrical prose, with frequent, ironic metaphors (facing facts, or putting a good face on things), is another satisfaction of this terrific novel. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.