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Wake by Anna Hope


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It was the loved ones left behind, not just the dead, who haunted Anna Hope when she visited the First World War cemeteries of northern France. There are the names of 72,191 on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiep­val, she says. I started thinking of the extraordinary lack of closure there must have been for the families of the 600,000 men who died in France, none of whom was brought back. Closures such a modern word, but none of those families would have had the ordinary comforting rituals of death.

Hope had gone to France with her father, knowing she wanted to write a novel about the women of the period, which she had already spent a year researching. But I was still totally unprepared for those grave­yards. Theyre very democratic officers and soldiers have the same graves. Theres this great sense of communality in death, at a time when Britain was so class-ridden. As early as 1920, there were package tours to visit the cemeteries, but at £6 for a day trip, they would have been prohibitively expensive for most families.

Shortly afterwards, Hope saw an episode of Andrew Marrs History of Modern Britain that included a re-enactment of the choosing of a corpse to go in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in Westminster Abbey. I was fascinated by how this became a great national event, by the extraordinary displays of grief by people who had had no opportunity to bury their dead, she says. Thousands stood on the white cliffs of Dover to see the boat carrying the Unknown Soldier arrive. There were people all along the line from Dover. When the train arrived at Vic­toria, crowds burst through the barricades in a sort of feral, quite un-British fashion.

Hopes illuminating debut novel, Wake, is set over the five days in November 1920 during which the body of the Unknown Warrior travelled from a field in France to Westminster Abbey. Against this backdrop, she weaves the stories of three London women whose expectations of life have been stunted by the war. Ada, a working-class housewife, is haunted by the loss of her only child. Evelyn, 29, is an upper-class office worker, embittered by the death of her fiancé. Hettie, 19, supports her traumatised brother with earnings as a dancehall instructress.

That burial started to seem a fault line between empire and modernity, Hope says. Before the war, you have women who couldnt go anywhere without a chaperone, and an empire completely sure of its status in the world. After that, you have so much fracturing of those certainties in the artistic movements that came out, in the way men were emasculated, while women, previously corseted and strapped down, were experimenting with notions of gender, and in the youthquake of the 1920s.

Wake is one of several novels by female writers coming out this year set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and exploring its impact on non­combatants, as well as returnees. They include Helen Dunmores The Lie (out Jan 16), Adele Parkss Spare Brides (Feb 13), Louisa Youngs The Heroes Welcome (May 22) and Sarah Waterss The Paying Guests (Sept 4). These are established writers; Hopes novel is one of the most anticipated debuts.

The authors blurb on Hope, a statuesque blonde, suggests someone accustomed to success. She studied English at Oxford, then acting at Rada, and has a masters in creative writing from Birkbeck. Yet the 39-year-old started writing only at 30, during the long waits between acting jobs. When I started writing fiction I loved the fact that it carved out this imaginative space where I was the director, lighting designer, props person...

Her actresss ear may be the reason the dialogue flows so convincingly in her novel. Another draw is its evocation of a near-forgotten national moment. The idea of giving a state funeral to an unknown British soldier, proposed by David Railton, a padre on the Western Front, became a focal point for a nation struggling to direct its grief. At the Armistice Day service, a hierarchy of loss was used to organise the seating plan, with a group of about 100 women mourning the loss of both their husband and all their sons given pride of place alongside the dignitaries. Within five days, more than 500,000 people had paid their respects at the tombside, while 1.5m had filed past the newly unveiled Cenotaph. When the grave was closed, a week later, mourners were still filing past at the rate of 100 a minute.

There is a vividly contrasting mass event in Wake when Hope takes the reader inside the ­Hammersmith Palais, where Hettie works as a hired dance partner. When it was opened in 1919, 6,000 people came on the opening night. There must have been such a need to dance. I was fascinated by the trans­actional relationship between the dance instructors and instructresses, paid sixpence a dance, and their partners. Were these the excess single women? The men whod lost limbs?

Hopes husband, David, an academic, has supported her fin­ancially to give her time to write the novel. She has repaid him this year with a sabbatical spent in north Wales and Devon. There she has been writing a second novel, set in 1911, in the Yorkshire mental asylum where her great-great-grandfather died. She has been reading that years Encyclo­paedia Britannica. Its a collectors item, because its written so exquisitely and with such ­confidence, she says. Of course, things were never quite the ­same again.

Wake is published by Doubleday on Jan 16 at £12.99.

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