There are three women at the heart of Wake – Hettie, Evelyn and Ada.
Although they are from very different backgrounds, they are all struggling in their own ways in the aftermath of the war, and it is the tragic story of Ada’s son Michael that eventually brings them together. Hope says explains that, “that side of the novel did come to me quite quickly; I knew I wanted them to be from different social classes to explore how they would all be affected differently. Upper class women like Evelyn were often hit the hardest after the war, because there were so few of their men that had survived, so they had little chance of finding a husband.
"What happens to Michael, at first I really resisted that. I thought it was too terrible and I almost didn’t want to go there but I just had this feeling that it had to be something terrible that happened, which then needed healing and cleansing. In the end it seemed inevitable that his fate would be the thing that brings them together. It is told from the perspective of three women and that is not an accident, but I felt it was important to give the men in the novel their due. I wanted to making them secondary characters, but in no way minor ones.”
Despite the tragedy within its pages, Wake is also a novel filled with hope, and Hope says that she, “really wanted it to be a pleasurable read that carried weight, rather than a heavy read, even though it is a heavy subject. It still boggles my mind now, even though I’ve spent so long looking at that period, what it must have been like for individuals and for society; there was just this total lack of closure for people, there was this enormous devastation but no bodies were brought back. For many wives, mothers and children there was no body to acknowledge or touch.”
Wake is set over five days from Sunday 7th November 1920, when the body of the Unknown Soldier is exhumed in France, to Thursday 11th November, when his body arrives at the Cenotaph. The initial inspiration for the novel, however, was not the Unknown Soldier, but the battlefields that Hope visited. “Whilst I was doing research into the period, which I knew was going to be a moving experience, I was blown away by the battlefields – all the gravestones are the same, which I hadn’t known before, whether you were a Captain or a Private, they were the same. That really struck me, that at a time when England was so obsessed with class they were all the same. I started researching how easy it would for the women left behind be to visit these graveyards, and I realised it was really quite expensive and that not many people would have been able to afford it. Then I was watching a documentary about the tomb of The Unknown Soldier, and I thought that would be an amazing structure to weave the stories of these women around.”
“David Railton, who was a Padre on the Western Front, wrote and made the suggestion to bury an Unknown Soldier, but the King was against it – he thought it was vulgar and “poised on the tightrope of taste” – and had to be persuaded. Once he was, within a matter of weeks the whole ceremony was put together and I find it incredible that in such a class-ridden society there was this democratic gesture of remembrance, which was so potent. You can read the statistics about how many people went down to file past the grave and it is just incredible, people were filing past for days and days, there were thousands every hour.”
In order to write Wake, Hope did a lot of research, reading up on the First World War for about a year before she started writing and then continuously reading in the two years the novel took to write. “I went to the British Library a lot because I wanted to read as much women’s fiction from the time as I could. There is not a lot that has survived in print from the time, but there was this incredible piece of writing by Mary Borden called Forbidden Zone – her prose is as incredible as Hemingway’s. I hope that will have be re-issued next year, because it really is brilliant.”
Wake by Anna Hope is out now, published by Transworld.