World War I tends to get short shrift in fiction. It was not the war to end all wars. Its’ battles did not span the globe, and it did not involve worldwide alliances and partnerships. The battles themselves involved a one-war-only battle strategy that everyone agrees was an unmitigated failure that caused more harm than good. Finally, nothing was truly accomplished at the end of the war. All of these reasons make it the war that tends to be ignored.
While Wake does not occur during the war itself, it does a brilliant job of highlighting the lasting damage it did to the soldiers’ mental states and a country’s collective psyche. Evelyn’s job within the Pensions Exchange emphasizes the trauma these soldiers suffered and how unprepared the British government and economy was to help them readjust into society. Hettie’s job as a dance instructor is a symbol for a country trying to recover some of its former innocence and/or forget the horrors of war regardless of where one spent those war years. Meanwhile, Ada stands in for all mothers and sweethearts who lost loved ones. As their stories blend and merge, it becomes a fascinating look at how small the world really is and how one tiny action can have such a large impact on others. Connections are everywhere, and as the three women prove, one is never alone in one’s pain and suffering.
Readers who dislike ambiguous endings should steer clear, as Wake ends abruptly – very abruptly, as in the middle of a sentence. On the one hand, it is a brilliant fade to allow readers to provide their own endings to the various strands of the story. On the other hand, it is so sudden an ending that one may question whether it is poor editing or a publishing error. Readers who can overcome the lack of closure will appreciate the placement of power within the readers’ hands. Those who cannot do so would do well to avoid the book altogether.
Wake fills a gap in historical fiction by exposing the collective grief and trauma of a country recovering from a war. The fact that it occurs a few years after the war’s end is particularly telling because it shows just how difficult it was for everyone to adjust to peacetime and how long the adjustment period really was. The number of soldiers out of work or completely unable to work due to shell shock or injury is astounding. The three women are the perfect allegory for the British people and British economy, struggling to make ends meet and adjust to life after seeing first-hand the worst thing people can ever experience.
Wake is an emotional experience as well as an educational one. The mood is appropriately somber with a hint of desperation that strikes at a reader’s emotional core. The individual stories of the three women are intimate without making a reader feel unhealthily voyeuristic, while the characters themselves are wonderfully three-dimensional and fully developed. Historical fiction fans would be remiss to bypass Wake with its wonderful prose and strong emotions.