What a great book for a book club to read.
I’m not in a book club, but I’d like to be. I can be kind of pushy though so I think I would need to be in a book club with a lot of old women. They may dip their Lamingtons daintily into their tea, but they are fierce with the language. I imagine joining “The Golden Girls” of book clubs. Maybe in that case, we’d be drinking beer with orange slices.
I wasn’t actually expecting this book to be that good. I was drawn to the cover of the woman cheeked to the shoulder of a man. They’re holding each other in a midlife version of your seventh grade dance, except her face has such a look of contentment. It’s the look of contentment that drew me to this in the endless NetGally catalog.
Wake is a story of a five day experience in the lives of three women. The reader is aware that at the end of the book, the women will be witness to the burying of an Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day that was shipped from France and the WWI dirt mound burials, to the decadence of London in Westminster Abbey. The reader is packed full of information within these five days of how these women are connected through their losses of war and trauma, but also how these women are coping.
The first is a mother, Ada, who has forgotten to live her own life due to the absence of her son. She has no clear death explanation and is finding his face in crowds, in the street, while standing in line at the butchers, and most importantly in the round mouths of shell shocked soldiers. Hettie is a dancer-for-hire at the local dance hall and like most women at one point or another, falls in love with a soft whisper of a man in a murky club. Evelyn cannot leave her bed in the morning without seeing the lack of creases in the side next to hers where her boyfriend, Frasier, should be. Her story is less about Frasier and more about her relationship with her brother, Ed, who was a Captain in the military during WWI, but she also works at an office where discharged and battle-worn, battle-tired, battle-misshapen soldiers are sent to ask for money while they peddle household goods on the street.
One of my favorite daydreams is about a Civil War woman leaning on her balcony with a letter clutched to her chest and the wind sifting her dried hair which is in a bun and disheveled. She is waiting for something, but I always wake up from the reverie before that something arrives. Sometimes she starts to sweat. Sometimes she spends five minutes overworking her sleeves because they aren’t falling right on her shoulders and chest. Occasionally, her eyes are closed and her face is fish eyed by the purr of sunset glaze. I think one of the most interesting aspects of my family background is that one of my Great Great’s died from being shot in the arm during the Civil War. I can’t help but wonder, more often that not, when I’m tired and my eyes are pearling over into dreaminess, what the Great Great woman left at home did when the letter arrived telling her of her husband’s departure. With today’s modern medicine, an arm injury could easily be healed over and the soldier sent back to the field, or back to the kitchen of his home where he will eat dinner with his family and heal the many horrors of war. But, during the Civil War and wars before this, any injury could be life-threatening.
The short aspects of WWI that are illuminated within this story were brilliantly written. I had a moment last night where I almost thought I would cry, but the tears just couldn’t be crushed out. Somewhere inside, I knew that soldiers had to make questionable decisions everyday and last night talking to my boyfriend about this book I was trying to hash out an understanding of what these soldiers did to one another. My boyfriend, clear as ever, told me, “You can’t judge someone for what they do during a war because it’s not as if they would do those things in their normal life.” A man who sets up a firing squad for a soldier in his unit going AWOL because he is wrapped in a shake that cannot be calmed, might not shoot at someone in the street of his village. War is something that is in its own context and this was one of those war stories that not only showed what it would be like to be the widow, or the one waiting by the mail, by the train, by the open hinges of their heart, but also the man who becomes a man he doesn’t understand in battle.
I was completly invested in these people, even disappointed with their behavior at times. The story is written during the 1920s so it has that glimmer of the fine life that I imagine the 20s to be with bottles of champagne, flapper dresses, underbelly alley clubs with secret African American jazz performers, and bob haircuts. However, it also has that good balance of misery and bitterness from those bottles and that excess. The characters are living in a world of fancy, but are unable to interact with that world because they are so caught up in the bubble of their own life. It reminds me of that John Watson quote (at least I believe it’s John Watson thanks to this blog), “Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” The women in this book never meet each other, but are all connected by the men they wear on their sleeves.
I’m not going to say that this was the best literary book out there and it should win awards for its originality, or poignancy, or beautiful writing, but it was a solid read. I already recommended it to the students in my creative writing club, because it’s one of those fun beach reads. That’s what I recommend it for, the beach, or a soft vacation where you just want to be. This is one of those books you can sit with and drink tea because we all know London has scheduled times for that. Live like the Londoners do, and dip some crumpets, open the pages, and sift away.
Have you read any good love and loss stories lately, or World War stories? I’m always looking for WWII stories. What do you think about this Anti-Flirt Club?