The Year After by Martin Davies
This novel is set in Britain, December 1919, just after the first World War. Tom Allen is one of the lucky ones returning from the battlefields seemingly intact; but not knowing what he is going to make of the rest of his life. Meanwhile, he accepts an invitation to spend Christmas with old friends at Hannesford Court, where he used to spend happy days in the past, before the war.
In some ways, it's almost as if nothing has changed. Dinners, games, hunting; plans to resume the tradition of the New Year Ball. Everyone is there who used to be there – except for all the young men that died in the war, and are now mourned and celebrated as heroes. Because what other way is there to make sense of it all?
There were others who died too, even if not on the battlefield. The old German professor… What exactly was it that happened to him, just before the war broke out? And that young girl who supposedly drowned herself? … Everything that happened before the war seems so very long ago now – and seen in relation to all the war-related deaths, does it really even matter?
In returning to Hannesford, Tom finds himself confronted in unexpected ways with the past as well as how to deal with the present and the future.
Some questions are raised early on in this book, but it takes time before they start to come together. I think the slowness is intentional. A fragment here, a glimpse there… It puts the reader in the same kind of reflection and hesitation as the characters in the story. There are two different main narrators: Tom Allen, and Anne Gregory, former companion to Lady Stansbury, and now nurse to the vicar’s wife in the village.
For me this book reminds of Downtown Abbey (the recent TV-series), Agatha Christie style mysteries, The Great Gatsby (which I recently reread), and Brideshead Revisited (I never read the novel by Evelyn Waugh, but have seen the 1980’s TV-series based on it more than once). (Must put that novel on my list…)
For me, living in a country that was not actively involved in neither WWI nor WWII, this book really drives home the point of how many young men died in the first world war, and what imbalance in society that must have caused afterwards.
And in almost every house, a photograph, prominently displayed. I hadn’t realised that ours had become a nation of shrines.
Sometimes it was hard to remember who was alive and who was dead.
In every such gathering, that year and every year, there would be young women who did not dance because their partners lay dead in the fields of France. They would be sitting out those dances for the rest of their lives.
‘There were telegrams in Germany too, you know. They’ve got the same empty places at their tables. Empty beds. But they can’t stand in church like we can and thank God for victory and try to persuade themselves it was all worthwhile.’
As I mentioned in my Teaser Tuesday post, this book is quite different from the previous two titles by the same author (The Conjuror’s Bird and The Unicorn Road) - which in turn were not like each other either. I’ll be curious to read whatever comes out of Martin Davies’s pen next, though. (Yes, it is said that he actually writes his manuscripts in longhand!)
I’m linking this review to Booking Through Thursday, where Deb asks: “Happy Spring Equinox, everyone! What book are YOU choosing to celebrate with?”
As for Spring Equinox… There’s really nothing outside my windows to indicate it yet. Okay, okay – there is the light. The days are getting longer. But the sun has not won the battle against the snow yet. This week some days we’ve had icy winds, snowfall and sunshine at the same time. (I suppose that’s better than snowstorm without any sun, but still… It’s weird!)