Wake by Anna Hope

With expertly written characters and a convincing melancholy tone, Anna Hope brings the aftermath of World War I to life through the lives of three English women.


Anna Hope’s debut novel, Wake, follows three English women over a span of five days in 1920, building toward the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day and the end of World War I.

Hettie works in London as a dance instructor, paid by the dance to twirl with strangers, many of whom are missing limbs. She struggles to support herself as well as her irritable, aging mother and a brother who has not worked–or hardly spoken–since the war’s end. The festive, exotic dance hall where she works presents an interplay between light and dark, and Hettie’s forays with a more fortunate friend to a breathtaking speakeasy emphasize class differences. There, she meets a handsome, wealthy young man who intrigues her, but the distance from which he regards the world seems unconquerable.

Evelyn handles veterans’ pension complaints, a thankless job that keeps fresh the wound left by her boyfriend’s death in France. Asked every day to consider the fates of damaged young men, her bitterness grows. She used to be close to her brother, an officer, but he has not been the same since he returned.

And Ada is nearly mad, haunted by her son, whose death “of his wounds” has never been properly explained to her. Her loving husband feels that he has lost a wife as well as a son. When a young man appears on her doorstep and speaks her son’s name, Ada is staggered; this event threatens to precipitate her descent into mental illness.

Woven among the three women’s stories are brief views of military exhumation of unidentified bodies, candidates for the unknown soldier who will be reburied and honored on the anniversary of Armistice Day. These scenes establish and emphasize a gray, cold backdrop to the lives of Hettie, Evelyn and Ada.

Hope’s strengths lie in nuance and atmosphere, as she gently and subtly reminds the reader of humanity under the worst of conditions. The pervading mood of the novel is reinforced by poverty, an inability to talk about past trauma and the presence of countless maimed and begging young men. As the lives of her three protagonists come together and the unknown soldier nears his final grave, Wake’s deeply moving, ultimately universal story speaks evocatively across nearly a century.

This review originally ran in the February 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 dances.

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