Thursday, March 17, 2016

WWI in Books

Last October, I wrote about how everything I was reading and watching seemed to align around World War II. Now I've jumped back by a few decades to focus on World War I, with two of the best books that I've read recently both set during that time period.

(Vera Britain, image via here)

First, I finally got around to reading the memoir Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Published in the 1930's, it looks back on Vera's life when she leaves her place at Oxford to serve as a nurse during the war. Brittain writes about her experiences at the various hospitals she's posted at, both in England and abroad, about the deaths of her fiance and her brother, and finally about her subsequent return to Oxford to complete her studies after the war. It's easy to see why Testament of Youth has been considered one of the definitive literary accounts of WWI. Although Brittain brings 15 years' worth of perspective to her narration , she extensively uses excerpts from the actual diaries she kept during the war. The effect of that combination makes for one of the most compelling and moving books I've read in any genre.

After reading A Testament of Youth, I can see how it probably serves as source material for more recent works set during that time period, from the early seasons of Downton Abbey to Wake, the 2014 novel by Anna Hope. As the book's description points out, the word wake has several meanings: to emerge from sleep; a ritual for the dead; and a consequent or aftermath. Set just after the war, Wake illustrates these different meanings by using three different story lines in which three women interact WWI veterans in different ways. Their stories end up being intertwined, and are also woven into a narrative that follows the journey of the body of an unknown soldier as it is removed from its resting place in a French field and makes it way to London for a ceremonial burial. This was a beautifully written novel with smart plotting and character development. I can give it the highest compliment I can think of lately, which is that I can easily imagine this being a novel written by a beloved but forgotten mid-century writer only to be reissued by Persephone Books. Happily, it was written by a modern author, a fact that leaves me eager to read what Anna Hope writes next.

1 comment:

  1. Testament of Youth is on my to-read list. I like how you described Anna Hope's Wake as having a mid-century author feel. I'm not sure if I'll pick it up, only because I haven't been drawn to historical fiction lately. That said, a number of years ago I read and enjoyed W. D. Wetherell's A Century of November, which is set at the end of WWI. It's about a father traveling from Canada to visit the WWI battlefields where his son died and he discovers on his journey that his son had an English girlfriend.



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