1920s, active descriptions, book review, Britain, Caroline Scott, elegant premise, First World War, historical fiction, Imperial War Graves Commission, Menin Gate, missing in action, photography, psychological complexity, survivor guilt, war graves
Review: The Poppy Wife, by Caroline Scott
Morrow, 2019. 423 pp. $17
It’s spring 1921, two and a half years since the Great War ended, yet for many, painful uncertainty continues. Edie Blythe of Manchester is one who lives with that burden. Coping with her husband Francis’s presumed death in October 1917 has hurt her enough; the absence of definitive proof is excruciating. But as the story opens, Edie receives a photograph of Francis, undated, unaccompanied by any letter or identification, and the French postmark is only half-legible.
Nevertheless, she’s convinced that in the photo, Francis appears significantly older than she remembers him from his final home leave in September 1917, which means he may still be alive. Naturally, she can’t account for the photograph, though she invents wild theories. In any case, she sets out for France to try to track him down.
Meanwhile, Francis’s younger brother, Harry, is trying to trace him too. Since the war, he’s become a photographer-as his missing elder brother was, curiously enough. Normally employed to take studio portraits, Harry has been sent to the war cemeteries of France and Belgium — still very much under reorganization and construction — to photograph gravesites or places mentioned in soldiers’ letters home. The bereaved parents or spouses paying for these photographs want tangible images to hold onto, perhaps proof of their loss, and they can’t afford to visit the ground themselves.
A worthy task, preserving memories, yet Harry aches. He’s the only Blythe brother of three to return from the war, which already causes him survivors’ guilt; witnessing so many graves lashes him to a pulp. Equally painful, he’s always loved Edie. But he’s never acted on his feelings, and he believes he did nothing wrong by harboring a yearning. However, he’s pretty sure Francis figured it out and held it against him — and maybe Edie does too.
From this elegant, emotionally rich premise comes a novel of great power and psychological complexity. Both Edie and Harry are lost, even as survivors, as they try to find a way to continue living. You can’t help feeling drawn to them, Harry especially, as they struggle to do the right thing, whatever that is, not knowing whether they dare to hope for a happy future.
As an aficionado of First World War fiction and historian of that era, I applaud Scott’s portrayal of the time and place, which feels utterly lived in, testament to her scholarship and authorial skill. Besides her lost souls, she has the battlefield, the soldiers’ banter, the trenches, the mud, the postwar French towns trying to rebuild; all of it, rendered in breathtaking simplicity. Tens of thousands of soldiers died without a known grave, a mind-boggling tragedy which Scott has conveyed from many angles. Every note rings true, with the exception of the Blythe brothers’ company officers, who seem too lenient concerning certain lapses of discipline, on which the plot more or less depends. I think that’s forgivable, but I dislike the author’s occasional misdirection to give the reader false assumptions, while the characters, you find out later, knew the truth. That creates tension, but it’s an ungenerous trick.
Those are quibbles, however, when the narrative and the writing style take wings. I could cite many passages, but active description carries the day. Here’s one from Edie’s hotel in Arras, one place she’s gone on her search:
There are prints of Madonnas and saints all around the walls of this rented room and a black wooden crucifix is suspended above the headboard. It is wound around with a string of rosary beads and crumbling sprigs of heather. When she wakes in the night she can see the beads slowly rotating above. It looks like a bed in which an elderly relative has slowly died. She has spent enough nights lying awake in this awful bed trying to match the photograph silhouette of a broken-down town to the streets through which she has spent the day walking.
With words strung together like these, a thorough sense of place, and a story so deep and moving that it won’t let you go, The Poppy Wife is a superb novel. Warning: If the title and cover strike you as awkward, clichéd, or dumbed down (as they do me), don’t be put off. For the record, the British edition is titled The Photographer of the Lost, which makes more sense, as does the UK cover. I can think of several reasons Morrow repackaged the book, not least that they’re trying to position The Poppy Wife as women’s fiction. Is it Edie’s story or Harry’s? I don’t think it matters.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.