A Month in the Country by J L Carr

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This beautifully written novel, set in the depths of the Yorkshire countryside in the summer of 1920, was the perfect follow up to Cider with Rosie. Told from the perspective of a now elderly man, it captures the fleeting but unforgettable month he spent in the village of Oxgodby as a lonely, defeated and shell-shocked survivor of the trenches, hired to uncover a medieval wall mural in the local church. His absorption in his task, alongside his growing relationship with the residents of this sleepy backwater, will gradually heal him of the horrors of war, and give him the freedom to move on with his life.

Thanks to an eccentric spinster’s stipulation that the local church would only receive a handsome sum of money from her will if they hired someone to uncover the long-lost medieval mural hidden inside its unprepossessing exterior, Tom Birkin is given a much needed break from his London life. His wife has left him, and he is still suffering from the embarrassing facial twitch he developed during his time in the trenches. His sleep is disturbed by nightmares of bombing and gunfire, and he is struggling to find his purpose, feeling cast adrift in his life. Arriving in Oxgodby, he is instantly befriended by the station master and his daughter, but the young vicar in charge of the purse strings is not so welcoming, and is clearly displeased at having him there. Tom is thrilled, however, with the opportunity to live simply for the summer; he has been given the bare boards of the church’s bell tower to sleep on, from which he is afforded a lovely view of the surrounding countryside, as well as the archeological dig below that is also part of the will’s terms. Running the dig is the jovial Moon, a fellow trench survivor, with whom Birkin will strike up a friendship rooted in a mutual understanding of the horrors they have survived. Within a couple of days of arriving, Birkin finds himself already assimilated into the local community, and all this before he has even really begun to unearth the hidden treasure beneath the church’s white painted walls.

Birkin’s absorption in the work of uncovering this mural is rewarded by the exquisitely beautiful painting he discovers; the work of a master, this is a discovery of national significance that Birkin is thrilled to have had the opportunity to find. His excitement builds day by day, as does his affection for Oxgodby and its people. One person in particular captures his heart; the intelligent, serene and gorgeous Alice Keach, unlikely young wife of the unpleasant Vicar, who, like Birkin, seems trapped in a life that should not be hers. Birkin is mesmerised by her, but afraid to speak of his feelings. As the heat of the summer builds, the true scale of the mural is revealed, and Birkin’s passion quivers on the edge of revelation, the story climbs to its magnificently apt, poignant conclusion. Birkin’s shattered spirit is slowly rebuilt through both marvelling at the work of a craftsman dead for some 600 years, and the warmth and affection of the villagers living in this perfect distillation of England. Brief but rich in emotion, poignancy and glorious descriptions of a countryside filled with the heady scent of a long-gone summer, this is perfection. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Wake by Anna Hope

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This is such a brilliant book; one that is both beautifully written and emotionally involving, with a fascinating plot and wonderful characters who pluck at your heartstrings on every page. There are plenty of modern novels out there that try and recreate the experience of war, and many of these have become modern classics – Birdsong and the Regeneration trilogy probably being the most well known. However, what makes this revisiting of WWI so interesting is that it sets itself just after the war, in 1920, in the week leading up to the burial of The Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The battlefields here are not those infamous mud-sodden tranches of France and Belgium, but the homes of three London women who have lived through the war and are still fighting with its aftermath. This is a time and an experience not often written about, and I found it absolutely fascinating and thought provoking to consider the profound change that the war brought to so many people’s lives, whether they lost someone they loved or not. Hope explores the impossibility of resuming a normal life after the emotional and physical toll of living through such horror and grief for so long, and through drawing together the lives of three seemingly disparate women dealing with very different circumstances, she allows us into the world of a battered country whose people were still reeling from the shock of the war, two years after ‘victory’ had been won.

Ada is a middle aged housewife in Hackney, her world seemingly preoccupied with her cleaning, shopping and husband Jack, who spends most of his time at his allotment. She has lived her entire married life in her house, content with the little she has, happy in her marriage and in her close circle of neighbourhood friends. However, the visit one morning of a door-to-door salesman, a former soldier, reveals the deep tragedy of Ada’s life. He seems to want to tell her something about her only child, Michael, who never came home from the war, but he leaves, frightened, before Ada can question him further. Three years on, she still doesn’t know how he died, and this haunts her; she sees him everywhere she goes, and cannot let go until she knows his fate. Across town, in leafy Primrose Hill, Evelyn, a 29 year old ‘spinster’ from a wealthy family, shares a flat with her best friend and works in the Pensions office responsible for handing out money to ex-soldiers. She is deeply unhappy, still grieving the death of her fiance at the Front, and unable to move forward with her life or take any joy in her existence. Her job, dealing with the emotion and anger of soldiers reduced to nothing to live upon, depresses her even further. However, one day, a man comes asking not for money, but for information about his old Captain. Evelyn is shocked to hear him name her brother, who survived the war but came back an utterly changed man, and seems to spend most of his days soaked in whisky. Initially Evelyn refuses to help, but horrified that her brother may have committed an atrocity in battle, she determines to seek out answers. Meanwhile, Hettie, a teenage dance instructress at the Hammersmith Palais, is trying to find love and laughter amidst a world of broken men and despairing women. Her father is dead, her brother incapacitated by the horrors of what he experienced and her mother lost in grief. Her home in Hammersmith has lost any life and she is desperate to escape, but the strict confines of her mother’s rules and the financial dependence her family now has upon her prevents her from living the life she wants. One night, however, a handsome man asks her to dance at a shady nightclub in the city. Attracted by his cool, mysterious demeanour, Hettie can’t resist the chance to get to know him better, in the hope that he might be a ticket to a new start.

Meanwhile, the process of choosing the body of an unnamed soldier and bringing it back home is ongoing in France, and the anticipation in London is building. For so many people who have never seen the bodies of their dead, or where they are resting, this is a deeply personal event; a chance for them to say goodbye, to grieve afresh, to experience the funeral they never got to give their boys. For the men who served and returned, it is a chance for them to weep for the comrades they lost, and acknowledge their grief publicly, perhaps for the first time. A nation in mourning looks to the body of this poor soul as a way to achieve a collective catharsis; a chance to put the lid on the war once and for all, and to move on, together, to a better future. For Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, The Unknown Warrior has an indidivual significance, and each will wrestle with their desire to both go and watch the ceremony, and to stay away, as they confront the grief his burial resurfaces, and consider how to allow themselves to find happiness again.

This is such a remarkable book that brings the period to life through its troubled characters and the drab, dismal setting of a scarred and dirty post-war London, filled with unemployed men and grey-faced women lost in a world that has become so different from the one they used to know. It is beautifully and inventively written, adding something unique and genuinely enlightening to the canon of contemporary historical fiction. I was delighted by how much I enjoyed it, and it is particularly promising that this is Anna Hope’s debut novel; I can’t wait to see what she writes next. Wake is not one to miss, and in the centenary of WWI, essential reading.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

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I’ve read plenty of books about WWI, many by people who actually served in the conflict. However, my view has always been completely one sided. I know about the British experience of life in the trenches, and I know how British soldiers and civilians largely viewed the war, but I have never read anything about the German perspective. As I’m teaching a unit on WWI literature this term, I thought I’d better address that rather large gap in my knowledge, and so I picked up the most famous German account of life at the front, All Quiet on the Western Front. From the very first page, I was taken aback at how similar Remarque’s observations are to those of the most prominent British chroniclers of the war, Graves and Sassoon. Apart from the German names of the soldiers, I could just as well have been reading about life in the British Army. This disconcerted me completely, as I soon found myself desperately concerned about the safety of Paul, the young narrator, and absolutely furious at any Allied soldier who tried to kill him. I didn’t care which country he was from or what he represented; I just wanted him to stay alive.

This is what Remarque’s novel makes so completely clear; when it came to the soldiers on the ground, there was no right or wrong, no good and no bad. There was just survival, pure and simple. The other side was only the enemy because they put your life and that of your friends in danger; the ideology behind the war was largely irrelevant to those forced to act out the desires of those in power. As someone so used to thinking of the British and Allied armies as the ‘good’ side and the Germans and other ‘Central Powers’ as the ‘bad’ side, it was so thought provoking and challenging to think of the war on a smaller and more human scale, and to consider why I have always so simplistically sympathised with the soldiers on the winning side when neither group were to blame for the situation they found themselves in. Especially after conscription was introduced, none of Europe’s young men had a choice but to join their armies, regardless of whether they agreed with the governments who had plunged their countries into war. Those German boys had dreams, too; futures they had studied and planned for, wives and children they wanted to go home to. Of course they did. The war was a tragedy for everyone involved, and perhaps even more so for the losing side, because they had to return to a depressed and defeated country rather than a jubilant, victorious one. It took me by surprise how little I had really thought about that before.

The other element of the novel I found fascinating was how Remarque described the feeling of utter abandonment and hopelessness many young, educated men felt after being confronted by the horrors of war. Those who were older than them had seen a life before the war, and had jobs and families to go back to afterwards. Those who had seen nothing of life yet, and been brought up to believe in the high ideals taught to them by their schoolmasters, found that the bedrock of their lives and future ambitions had been destroyed, and they had nothing to aim for and nothing to return to. They had lost faith in their world, and saw little point in the childish, idealistic dreams they had once had. With no experience of an adult world outside of horror, murder and destruction, what hope did they have for the bright future they had planned before the war ripped their worlds apart?

This is an incredibly moving novel that gives such a vital voice to the young men of Germany’s ‘lost generation’. Unlike many British WWI memoirs and novels, it is the story of a normal soldier, not an Officer, who showed no distinguishing merit on the battlefield but was merely an ordinary boy from an ordinary family, thrust into an horrific situation thanks to an accident of birth and forced to do the best he could under the circumstances. Remarque is searingly honest about the realities of war and the way in which it alters the accepted boundaries of human morality and behaviour. He is also brilliant in his exploration of the complete and utter futility of war; no wonder Hitler had his books burned in the 1930s, before he launched his own. Reading All Quiet on the Western Front left me feeling deeply sad, but also in awe of the immense capabilities of the human spirit to overcome the most desperate and harrowing of circumstances. I can’t recommend it highly enough.