Sunday 23 November 2014

Books: Novel dispatches from the domestic front line

Claire Coughlan

Published 23/06/2014 | 02:30

Twixt Love and Duty: A World War I postcard from 1914, showing a British officer saying farewell to a loved one
Twixt Love and Duty: A World War I postcard from 1914, showing a British officer saying farewell to a loved one

A batch of new novels casts a fresh eye over the effects of the Great War.

Wake, Anna Hope, Doubleday, €15.99

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters, Virago, €25

The Heroes’ Welcome, Louisa Young, The Borough Press, €15.99

Fallen, Lia Mills, Penguin, €15.99

 

This summer, July 28th, marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The Great War has been commemorated in literature many times up to now – those of us who did Leaving Cert English might remember the stirring and emotive poem Dulce Et Decorum Est from tragic soldier-poet Wilfred Owen, who died in battle and is also famous for his Anthem for Doomed Youth. The work of Siegfried Sassoon, and the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who fought for Britain, have also been widely anthologised.

Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, published in 1929 and set during the Italian campaign during the war, was Hemingway’s first bestseller and is widely considered to be in the canon of Great War novels. It was described by Hemingway’s biographer, Michael Reynolds, as:  “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I.”

But what about the voices of women – those who were left behind and bereaved but managed to survive – socially, emotionally, economically? We haven’t heard so much of those voices, until now.

There are several interesting novels published this year by female authors, charting women’s experiences of the Great War. All show how the war marked a seismic shift in society, for both sexes, but particularly from the female perspective, in the war’s immediate aftermath.

Wake, by British author Anna Hope, sold in a seven way bidding war between publishers – extremely impressive for a debut novel. The novel is set over five days in November 1920, deftly following the lives of three women who have all been affected differently – but equally devastatingly – by the war.

Hope had actually been researching the women’s suffrage movement of that era when she decided to explore the effects of the war on the lives of women.

“I was researching the suffrage battles of the early Twentieth Century for another book I was working on, and of course, 1918 is a huge date in that struggle,” she says. 

“I started to read about the aftermath period, and the more I read the more compelled I became – you have these women who had entered the workplace in enormous numbers being pushed back into the home (or not, in some cases) and 700,000 thousand men dead on the Western Front.”

“The returning soldiers were shattered and facing a contracted economy and struggle for jobs, promised a ‘land fit for heroes’ but coming home to anything but. The years from 1918-20 just seemed like a really fascinating period, and one I hadn’t seen dealt with in much fiction. Equally, the more I started thinking about women’s experiences in the war, the more I realised how few accounts I had read that dealt with that. Most of the known tropes of the war: the botched battles, the trenches, the rats, the barbed wire, were all from the male perspective. It became clear that I wanted to write about women, and attempt to excavate their stories a little.”

The inner lives of women, often gay women, have long been the preserve of the superb bestselling  novelist Sarah Waters. Her previous two novels, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, both dealt directly or indirectly with the Second World War and now Waters has turned her considerable powers to the First.

The Paying Guests, her eagerly anticipated new book – her first in five years –  will appear on shelves in August. It is set in London of 1922, where ex servicemen are disgruntled and out of work. But scratch beneath the surface and life must go on for the well-to-do Frances Wray and her mother, whose once beautiful Regency house in Camberwell is bereft of all male members of the family and is falling down around their ears.

The Wrays have no viable means of survival unless they take in lodgers to fill the empty rooms. Cue the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’ who will forever change life as the Wrays know it.

As you would expect with Sarah Waters, there are believable characters, a finely drawn historical setting and a surprising plot that keeps you guessing. It’s a real treat.

And according to Sarah Waters, this new book, her sixth published novel and her first to be set in the 1920s, is: “at heart, a love story; I think it’s more of a love story than any other novel I’ve written.”

Following in the same vein is The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young, author of the bestseller My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, which was a Richard and Judy Book Club choice.

It is set in the spring of 1919, following childhood sweethearts Nadine and Riley who must come to terms with Riley’s disfigurement in the aftermath of the war.

Meanwhile, Riley’s CO Major Peter Locke must come to terms with a wife and child he barely knows and Rose Locke, Peter’s cousin and Riley’s former nurse, strikes out for her independence in this changed social landscape.

But what about the Irish female angle on the war? This is incorporated by Irish author Lia Mills in her new novel Fallen, which comes with deserved praise from Kevin Barry and Anne Enright, who says: “Lia Mills writes superbly about the human heart.”

Mills has set her novel against the backdrop of both the 1916 Rising and the First World War.

“Back in another life, I studied and taught literary history from this period,” she says.

“It was a fascinating, vibrant time peopled by larger-than-life individuals.”

“At first I thought I’d write a novel with an activist as a central character, but her voice came out all wrong, it was wooden and more like a manifesto. The question of what it was like for someone who didn’t know what was happening seemed a lot more interesting.”

Mills says she didn’t set out to write historical fiction. “I was curious because my grandparents lived and worked on the edges of the fighting:  Parnell Street and Merrion Row. I wondered what it’s like if your city erupts into violence and you don’t understand what’s happening or know how it will turn out in the end? 

“Last week I heard a journalist on the radio talk about what’s happening in Ukraine and he said, there are extremists on both sides but the vast majority of people are just trying desperately to get on with normal life, to keep normal life going. It’s a contemporary question. Or maybe I mean it’s a timeless question, but it’s particularly acute now and I was interested in directing it backwards.”

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