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Review: Wake, by Anna Hope
Random House, 2014. 293 pp. $26

You might think that the four-day runup to Armistice Day, 1920, in London, and the burial of the Unknown Warrior that took place, would make a thin premise for a novel. After all, what tension could there be in a public funeral? Moreover, the unidentified soldier, exhumed from a battlefield in northern France, has been dead for years and belongs to no one in particular.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

But he also belongs to anyone who suffered loss, which is to say, the whole nation. And as with any intimate, familial funeral, the coming ritual stirs fear, jealousy, pain, renewed grief, and fury, as well as harrowed hearts longing for release. Wake turns the national day of mourning into a family affair, one of many families. For most, loss has stunted them and left them unable to love or even venture outside their fears. Naturally, their paths cross in unusual ways.

There’s Evelyn, who works for the pension office. It’s an utterly thankless job, but she’s not looking for fulfillment. Her lover died in the war, and her younger brother, the only kindred spirit within the family, has returned from France a brittle wreck. He scorns Evelyn for being bitter, and maybe she is. But she also speaks of the anger that can’t go anywhere, because nobody will listen:

Someone should do the world a favor. They should take one of those great guns that they wheel out for the occasion and turn it around; they should train it on the massed dignitaries at the Cenotaph, in the abbey, on the king and Lloyd George and Haig and the whole lot of them, should shoot them while they sit there, their old heads bent in prayer. . . . Hypocrites, stinking hypocrites all.

There’s also Ada, who can’t quite believe her son is dead and sees his face in every crowd. Or Hettie, who makes sixpence a dance at a dance hall, and whose brother remains so shocked from the trenches that he seldom speaks or leaves his armchair.

I wasn’t surprised to read that author Hope once trained to be an actress, for her narrative often has a theatrical feel, clipping along in short scenes. She’s got an economical style, suggesting more than she shows. But cutting away before things get too complex sometimes feels like a bailout, and it restricts what you can see of her characters. This is especially true of the men, who appear to exist only in the moment, only on the surface.

By contrast, Wake portrays the women very well, showing how the war left them behind, in several ways. Evelyn curses the old soldiers who act as if they own the streets, the war, and its legacy. No matter what women did, or still do, they count for nothing by comparison, and all they hear is that their aspirations can and should go no further than having a husband and children. Without soapboxes or drumbeats, Wake vividly conveys this feminist rage, every ounce of which feels earned. Likewise, the class conflict between officers and “other ranks” comes through loud and clear, a truth that the praying hypocrites refuse to acknowledge.

On the downside, the crossed-paths aspect of Wake falls short. Hope’s a skillful storyteller, so the narrative fits together, but a few crossings feel contrived, and the coincidences mount up. Two are predictable, one of which she borrowed (perhaps unwittingly) from For King and Country, my favorite film about the war, starring Tom Courtenay and Dirk Bogarde. I don’t fault her for this–all novelists borrow–and you might as well take from the best.

What I do object to is the attitude, universal in Wake, that, once the expected glory had faded by mid-1916, nobody in Britain fought except from fear of punishment. What nonsense. Unlike the case with France or Russia, Britain’s initial allies, no mutiny ever took place among British forces, and support remained strong for a war that barely touched England’s shores. Soldiers hated the trenches and, often, the generals, but most believed in the cause, and the reverence that accompanied the burial of the Unknown Warrior stemmed partly from national pride. That the politicians basked in this feeling, as if they’d invented and deserved it, doesn’t mean that the people who fought for them were dupes or slaves.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.