The First World War has long been seen as the preserve of men, but some of the best portraits of it have been written by women. Both sexes suffered and were changed; the damage done has echoed down the generations.
Louisa Young's fourth novel concerns an attractive working-class boy, Riley Purefoy, who is accidentally brought into contact with the Waveneys, a posh bohemian family living in Bayswater. Semi-adopted as a model and assistant by the Waveneys' family friend, an elderly painter, Riley seizes his chance to better himself, falls in love with Nadine and, in a state of confusion, enlists at 18. He comes under the command of lanky, gentle Peter. A quintet of characters emerge as the fates of Riley, Nadine, Peter, Peter's wife Julia and cousin Rose are intertwined.
The title is taken from a standard form sent to the next-of-kin when a soldier was hospitalised but not killed, and it's obvious that this novel will be about the pity and obfuscations of war as well as the action. The first half builds up the "layered horror" of the trenches at Ypres, and Riley and Nadine's passionate love for each other across the social divide. Riley finds that, unlike many officers, he has a talent for killing as long as he can make his real self not exist. His rise through the ranks, aided by his exposure to upper-class education, is meteoric, and the lovers blissfully consummate their feelings during three days of leave. The second, more original, half is about what happens when our hero has half of his face blown off.
Some of the material about the pioneering plastic surgery that developed, including the involvement of the artist Henry Tonks, may be familiar from Pat Barker's novel Life Class. The details of how Major Gillies rebuilt faces is as fascinating and moving as it is nauseating. Young shows us in quick, deft sketches the "black protective gaiety" by which sufferers hang onto their sanity, allowing her research to speak for itself. Riley's determination to spare Nadine a marriage made out of pity is reluctantly abetted by Rose, his nurse. How can the lovers ever be reunited? How can alcoholic Peter and weak, self-deluded Julia find each other either?
Young has a historian's eye for the private details of war, and a warmth to her prose that makes her small cast emotionally engaging. If Julia feels too close to the parasitical wife in Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier, then both Rose and Nadine are two sides of the same coin. Like the heroines of Kate Saunders's Night Shall Overtake Us, they are emblematic of what women, too, achieved and sacrificed.
Effectively, the novel stands or falls by Riley. Pure of heart, he flees from his first sexual encounter with a young toff and, after losing his virginity to a willing French farmer's daughter, refuses the allurements of the brothels because he wants to stay true to Nadine. Idealistic though that generation was, this tips the novel more towards romance than literary fiction. Through Riley, however, the novel achieves an appeal to compassion and courage that deserves to reach a wide audience, particularly among those who love a happy ending. Hindsight tells us peace will not be final, but Young conveys, beautifully, the universal wish that it might be.
Amanda Craig's 'Hearts and Minds' is published by AbacusReuse content