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Ritual for the dead

21 August 2015

Fiona Hook reads a moving historical novel by Anna Hope

julia bastek-michalska

Body of evidence: a man of Norman origin whose injuries "might be consistent with violence or combat": a photo from Death in the Close: A medieval mystery, by Andy Boucher, Luke Craddock-Bennett, and Tegan Daly, a record of the Hereford excavations 2009-11, especially the 710 most complete skeletons exhumed from the centre of Saxon Hereford (Headland Archaeology/Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust, £15; 978-0-9556419-2-3)

Body of evidence: a man of Norman origin whose injuries "might be consistent with violence or combat": a photo from Death in the Close: A medieval mys...

THE three definitions of the word that provides the title of Anna Hope’s well-researched and moving historical novel, Wake (Black Swan, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-55277946-3): to emerge or cause to emerge from sleep, a ritual for the dead, and a consequence or aftermath. The main characters mourn their dead, and in the course of the narrative begin to move on with their lives.

It is 1921, and we follow three London women for the five days between the carefully anonymous exhumation from the French battlefields of the body that will become the Unknown Warrior and his Armistice Day burial in Westminster Abbey.

They, as much as the nameless corpse, stand as symbols for the damage wrought by the war. Hettie, who is 19, earns a good wage dancing at the Hammersmith Palais, and supports her mother and shellshocked brother, but isn’t allowed to bob her hair. Upper-class Evelyn is nearly 30 and doesn’t need to work, but numbs her grief for her dead love with a blackly depressing job in War Pensions. Ada from Hackney lost her only son and, unlike her neighbour, Ida, had no letter saying how he died. She sees him on every street corner.

In a present-tense narrative that allows us to hear the characters’ thoughts as they occur, the characters’ lives intertwine, and we finally find out what happened to Ada’s son. Hope also examines the war’s aftermath for the vast tide of humanity washed back to civilian life. Soldiers in their best suits beg, or sell door to door. Ex-officers, even the "temporary gentlemen" promoted from the ranks, are supposed to have private means, and get no unemployment benefit.

While the rest of the world is caught up in the collective flow of emotion, Evelyn is a dissenting voice. "This is supposed to make it all right, is it?" she says bitterly to her brother, Ed, an ex-officer drinking his way to oblivion. "This burial? This pulling a body from the earth in France and dragging him over here? And all of us standing, watching, weeping?"

But Armistice Day proves cathartic for all three, and the novel ends on a note of hope.

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