For those who fought in World War I there were two likely outcomes: they would die or they would be damaged either mentally or physically and often both. For the women who loved them life was less certain.
Anna Hope has written a beautiful book following the five days prior to the internment of The Unknown Warrior at the Cenotaph. Each chapter is a day and each of those days follows the journey of the coffin from France to Britain for the ceremony.
The depth of descriptions of each the lives of the three women featured is outstanding, Ada, 45, whose son never returned from the war. Evelyn almost 30 and lives with a friend, another spinster and goes to work each day in the Pension Exchange interviewing the wounded and Hettie who lives with her mother and shell-shocked brother Fred who is employed as a dancer at The Hammersmith Palais de Danse. As the days go on the more we learn about these poor lost women and the men who surround them.
The book could be considered a little confusing to begin with as the women are introduced with no real link between them, all are unhappy and yearning for something better. This is a book that leaves you in no doubt that the two short years since the war ended has not healed the wounds inflicted upon the nation. All three women reveal more of their backstory as the book goes on. I am a fan of this kind of writing where the details are revealed layer by layer and our knowledge of the character grows throughout the book. I always feel that this is more like real life where we know the basics when we first meet someone, make a judgement based on the things they do and say and then if we get to know them better revise our judgements based upon knowledge of the reasons behind them and Anna Hope has mastered this to perfection. The little things that are revealed are among the most poignant in this book, who could not get a lump in their throat when an understated sentence is thrown in about an injured soldier paying sixpence to have a dance with a dancer employed by the Palais, wooden leg being a hindrance to bringing his own partner to the dance.
The historical details are also well-researched; The Hammersmith Palais de Danse was opened in 1919 and one irate clergyman was quoted as stating ‘the morals of a pigsty would be respectable in comparison’ (We Danced All Night by Martin Pugh) as the dances included American Jazz.
The Hammersmith Palais de Danse 1920 www.lbhf.gov.uk
For me this was a beautiful, if incredibly moving read, bravely, in this the hundredth anniversary of the start of the war, containing far more anti-war sentiment than many set in this time period.
I received this book from the publishers Random House UK, ahead of the publication date of 16 January 2014, in return for this honest review, something I am extremely grateful for as this book is one of those that will stay with me for a long time.