As World War II is to the United States, a conflict endlessly memorialized, representing the nation's crowning achievement before its inevitable decline, so World War I is to Great Britain. Little surprise, then, that on the latter war's centennial, another novel that centers on it should appear: Wake, by British author Anna Hope. As the homonym title suggests, however, Wake is less about the war than its aftermath. It's also less about men than women.
These women include Hettie, who dances for pay with crippled ex-soldiers; Evelyn, a former munitions factory employee now charged with addressing veterans' complaints; and Ada, a mother mourning her allegedly KIA son Michael. Unearthing Michael's true fate ties the women's stories together, and the truth is far from fodder for patriotic song.
The unifying male is Evelyn's brother, Ed, who charms Hettie with his wild talk about anarchism, his boozy vulnerability and his fondness for jazz and cocaine. These are Ed's ways of coping with impotence brought about by service as a captain. Meanwhile, Evelyn has stumbled on Michael's story through a visit from a brother-in-arms, while Ada consults psychics in a desperate attempt to commune with her son.
It has become fashionable to present apparently disparate plots that cleverly converge in the end. Hope can be forgiven for falling for this trope, as her characters are vivid and credible, which is harder to achieve than literary legerdemain. There is a peculiarly British, phlegmatic heroism in the women's efforts to recover from a very unheroic war. Their dignity matches that of the forsaken veterans, forced to beg or sell trifles in the streets.
“Good prose,” said Orwell, “is like a windowpane.” By that criterion Hope's is an achievement: Rarely, as too often happens in contemporary fiction, does the writer's ego enter into the writing. Instead, Hope lets the story and the characters do the work. That said, the novel's anti-war message could hardly be less obvious. Witness Ed saying, before an admittedly fatuous Armistice Day celebration, that neither side had been victorious. "War wins." True enough in this war, but as fatuous as that celebration when applied to others.
Still, Wake is an impressive first novel. It’s a potent reminder that the scars of WWI on the British psyche run deep, and Hope’s postwar, feminine twist on the usual guys-mud-and-guts treatment make it a unique, engaging read.