In a recent article in the New York Times, (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/opinion/sunday/why-world-war-i-resonates.html) William Boyd wrote,
“In 2014 it will be a hundred years since the First World War began, and yet its presence in novels, films and television has never been greater — in “Downton Abbey,” on television, in Steven Spielberg’s movie “War Horse,” in a mini-series of Sebastian Faulks’s “Birdsong” and, coming soon, in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End.”
And I would add to this list Louisa Young’s memorable novel My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.
Boyd also makes clear that
“For us British, the memories, images and stories of 1914-18 seem to have a persistence and a power that eclipse those of the Second World War… in Britain, where almost a million servicemen died, it’s still images of the trenches of the Western Front that are shown and that resonate on Remembrance Day. One of the reasons for this is, paradoxically, the resonance of the poetry. The poets of the First World War — Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg — are taught in almost all British schools.”
Historical fiction is a new pursuit in my life as I have always prided myself on focusing on history’s “facts.” But it took the American Civil War series by Ken Burns back in the 1990’s to create a desire for reading the first person narrative accounts of both Northern and Southern soldiers who were quoted throughout that series. And since then, having read a biography or autobiography of every American President and being delighted by the “autos” of Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, I have began reading more and more first person accounts, including some of the First World War, of persons in public service and the military.
And then I have made a step, perhaps a side step into historical fiction, and this past week to Louisa Young’s award winning novel that introduces us to a character that I think will stay in our memories for a long time, Riley Purefoy and a group of characters who navigate the historical and horrific of the First World War, Nadine Waveney, madly in love with Riley and yet in social status far above him; Peter Locke, Purefoy’s CO who battles the many demons that soldiers, and men, face; his wife Julia, whose inner angst and her emerging feminism is set against the back drop of the tragic war that sucks the blood and life from millions of men, and Rose Locke, Peter’s cousin and a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse whose stiff upper lip is slowly beginning to weaken as she, too, like millions of other women (and men) are slowly being worn down with the physical, mental, and emotional strain of war.
Rich in scene, comprehensive in character arc, and even in plot My Dear I Wanted to Tell You spans an 11 year period in which begins the relationship between Purefoy and Waveney courtesy of a snow ball thrown by her cousin. And from there Young sketches the pre-war days when social class and structure meant a great deal: through the opening days of the ‘Great War’:on through the tense front-line and home front days when war was chewing an entire generation: up to the anti-climatic end and days up to Christmas time.
What I like about this novel is the engaging way Young has written which invites the reader into the journey back and forth between the front and the home front as well as into the hearts and thoughts of the characters in an italicized format that at times became confusing to follow. I also had trouble during the initial scenes of keeping Julia and Rose straight in my mind. I also like the attention to detail regarding the medical treatments that Young brings into the story (and which she cites at the end with supporting research materials). And she does so just enough to catch the horror of the battle wounds of that age without being maudlin or gory.
And finally, I like the ability of Young to capture, I believe, the essence of the mindset of that generation who suffered such loss when Riley thinks:
“We have been outside humanity, beyond the moral universe, where there is no reason and no ground beneath your feet. We have been in a parallel reality. We’re going to have to come back.”
And as to the end, which I will not give away, I see a second book that continues this story because I do not think that it is finished!
I give this book a ‘Great’ read.
Note: I purchased an e-copy of this book via Amazon Kindle for my own personal enjoyment.