This highly emotional book ends with a group of young people standing at a village War Memorial as the names of the dead are read out - something any of us might do on Remembrance Day each year - but the difference is that these young people have been to Hell and back, fighting for their country in the Great War, and the named dead were their childhood friends.
This was a truly dreadful war. It was fought from trenches, facing each other over No Man's Land. Every inch of land taken from the enemy was paid for with the blood of young men, as they went 'over the top' of the trenches into the relentless hail of machine gun fire. And they died in the sucking mud.
The book opens in 1915. We meet Charlotte and her older brother, Francis. They live in the big house in the village of Stratharden. Widowed, their mother leaves the running of the estate to Francis. Francis is well-educated, thoughtful, protective and affectionate. He intuitively rejects the war, for it brings doom and destruction.
But as the war progresses many young men from his village volunteer to go and fight in France. Most of them never return. And for those who do, life at home will never be the same again. That is because while the men are away fighting, the women must do the war work. Francis's sister, Charlotte, is only fifteen but she volunteers to work, first in the local cottage hospital, later in the military hospitals in Edinburgh and northern France. Like many women, once she has experienced the freedom of choosing her own path in life she is unlikely to go back to her previous unquestioning domesticity. The class system also begins to break down. If men are to fight and die together, and if women are to work together in the munitions factory, or in the field hospitals of northern France, they are likely to regard themselves as social equals.
This is all background to a darkly realistic story about the destinies of Francis and Charlotte, and Margaret and John-Malcolm who are twins from the village shop. Although they come from very different social backgrounds, they are all overtaken by the black cloud of war. Even Francis cannot avoid the conscription board for ever. What does he find when he finally gets to the front?
"O Horror! Horror! Horror! Tongue not heart cannot conceive nor name thee!"
I had to lead a sortie out into No Man's Land the other night. We had left it very late as we knew that the other lot had been out and about earlier. they had come off rather the worst in the last engagement with their front line taking a pounding, and some oaf in command on their side (no doubt wanting to buck them up a bit) had sent them over to try to flush out our sector. We had beaten them back (just) but a lot of their chaps were badly wounded and were lying where they'd fallen, or had crawled for shelter into shell-holes. It's the decent thing to do (they do it for us) to let them try to get to their wounded, either to bring them back in or sort them out - this is a charming euphemism for despatching any poor chap taking too long to die, which is a mercy really and I hope someone takes as much care for me if required. The rats rush for raw flesh, and don't care whether it's live or dead. These vermin are fat-bellied and full and scurry about their business quite fearlessly.
It's a shocking portrayal of war, but it is also a tender and complex love story. Highly recommended.
What can I read next?
If you are interested in following up the First World War you could look at this one by Michael Morpurgo, (which I have not reviewed here):
- War Horse
Or this one by James Riordan:
- When The Guns Fall Silent
If you enjoy the intimate account of life changing for ever in the face of war, you might like to look at this trilogy by Kevin Crossley-Holland:
- Arthur: The Seeing Stone
- Arthur: At the Crossing-Place
- Arthur: King of the Middle March
Jamila Gavin has written a shocking historical story about a young couple overcoming difficult social conditions:
If you like to read about girls overcoming problems, you could look at this one by Jean Webster:
One other suggestion - you could look at this one by Adele Geras:
Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:
- Going For Stone by Philip Gross (Score: 93%)
- Stung by Joss Stirling (Score: 89%)
- Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley (Score: 89%)
- Starseeker by Tim Bowler (Score: 89%)
- Tag by Michael Coleman (Score: 89%)
Remembrance features in these lists: