London 1920. The war is over and for the last two years a nation tries to piece their fractured lives back together again. Sons return as strangers if they were lucky to return at all. Soldiers roam the streets looking for gainful employment now they find themselves surplus to requirements. The country is in a collective state of shock.
The debut novel of Anna Hope centres around the story of The Unknown Warrior, a solider selected at random from the battlefield and buried with a state procession on 11th November 1920. Some see it as a cynical act of propaganda, for many it’s a chance to pay their respects. To say goodbye. A rallying point to unify the country.
Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey 1919.
The book follows three woman during the course of the five days preceding the event. Ada is a mother who cannot let go of her dead son. Evelyn works in the pensions offices and is face to face with the aftermath of war on a daily basis. Hettie dances at the Hammersmith Palais for six pence a waltz and meets a mysterious stranger.
I was keen to uncover the link between these women and found myself engrossed in their lives. The date format works well allowing for attention for detail not always possible in epic stories. Despite the momentous events they have lived through, the woman are quite ordinary. They are human and relatable. Some have jobs they hate, disapproving mothers and an often-mundane existence. What connects them is a dark wartime event which has left its scars and threatens to consume them.
This book doesn’t sugar coat the reality of death and what it leaves behind. It very poignant particularly in the character of Ada, who is tormented by not having her sons body returned to her so she can wash him as she did when he was a child. It doesn’t shy away from the horror that was experienced in the trenches or likewise in the munitions factories where TNT poisoning would make your stomach heave and your skin turn yellow. Those who caught it were called ‘canaries’
The suspense builds up gradually and I was genuinely shocked by the final revelation. Raw emotions flood the pages and its difficult not to be moved by the fate of a particular character.
The final chapter takes us to the cenotaph where vast crowds gather to witness the state procession of the Unknown Warrior through the London streets. You can imagine the same line of thought running through their minds. Could it be him? Father, Son, Brother, Cousin? Does it make a difference?
I think this book is essentially about finding peace. The guns may have stopped firing but there are other battles to be fought. Of learning to let go of the past. Accepting what cannot change and laying ghosts to rest without forgetting. Tomorrow is a new day and life is for living.