This is a fairly basic (if there is such a thing) but poignant and reasonably well-written First World War novel, which I picked because much of it’s set in the Lake District, in and around Keswick. Although it ends before the war does, the emphasis isn’t so much on the war as on the longer-term effects, particularly on the bereaved and those left with life-changing physical and mental injuries. In particular, it addresses the effects on those with facial injuries, and makes some good points about how people who’d lost limbs were seen as heroes but people didn’t know how to react to those whose faces had been severely disfigured.
The main characters are four young people from the Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite areas – postman George, his lifelong friend Kitty, squire’s daughter Violet, and Violet’s fiancé Edmund. The link between the two pairs is George’s crush on Violet. Conscientious objection is addressed, with George’s father being opposed to the war on religious grounds, but George chooses to join up, and finds that Edmund is his commanding officer. When Edmund tries to shelter him from a shell but ends up taking the full force of it himself and being killed, George blames himself for Edmund’s death and Violet’s devastation, and has to cope with that as well as with the serious facial injuries that he’s suffered.
It’s not written in a particularly deep and meaningful way, and it’s not exactly an epic love and war novel, but it is very touching, and the characters are all convincing. Violet leans on George for support but soon accepts that she isn’t doing either of them any favours and asks him to stay away, and there’s no happy ending for her: we’re left not knowing how her life will turn out. But George finally realises that Kitty, who’s always seen him as more than a friend, is the one for him, and they get together.
There’s often a feeling that the years leading up to the Great War were some sort of Golden Age. Think of the song Mr Banks sings – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”. This book doesn’t really go for that angle. Violet’s got it good insofar as she’s got wealth and position and no need to work, but her parents’ marriage is unhappy and she doesn’t have a good relationship with either of them. George comes from a happy home, but his family have to work hard to make ends meet. But the lakes and the fells are there, and bring comfort to them both, and to Kitty with whom George explores them. And, after everything else has happened, the lakes and the fells still there, as they always have been. I stayed away from the Lake District for nearly four months from March to July this year, because first we weren’t supposed to travel due to lockdown, then they asked people not to come back yet, and then it kept pouring down at weekends. I never want to stay away again.
And there’s something … I don’t know that “inspiring” is the word, but there’s something about war novels at the moment, reminding us that bad times have come before but that they never last for ever. This isn’t one of the great epic war novels, but it was a good read and I enjoyed it.