Anna Hope's novel is set over the five days in November 1920 when the body of the Unknown Warrior was transported from its first grave, somewhere in France, to be reinterred in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day. While this solemn journey forms the backdrop to the story, its real focus is on three Londoners who, between them, show some of the different responses to the aftermath of the Great War.
Ada is a mother who lost her only son in the conflict; Evelyn is a younger woman, nearing 40, who lost a partner, and now works in a clerical job, almost as if to spite her upper-class family; while 19-year-old Hettie, who has never had anyone to lose, works as a dancing instructor at the Hammersmith Palais, earning sixpence a dance and shivering in her thin dress between engagements.
Hope weaves her three characters' workaday narratives together, building scenes that wear their research lightly: the shabby glitter of the dance hall, with its thrilling, practically taboo American jazz, the dull routine of the pensions office where Evelyn works, the surprise of her colleague when she buys him a drink at the pub.
"'This is interesting. I've never had a woman buy me a drink before.'
She raises an eyebrow as she lights her cigarette. 'I'm sure it tastes the same.'"
A cool customer, Evelyn, and an easy character to warm to, for all her spikiness.
The women's lives come at us in a present -tense narration that keeps the book easy to read, letting the characters' thoughts bob to the surface of the text in italics, as if in a nod towards the modernism that was brewing in that very period. That said, the shift to remembrance and backstory sometimes comes as more of a lurch than a drift, and the plot twists that link the three women together seem unnecessary. I was interested enough without them.
The least happy aspect of the novel are the sections, fully italicised, that narrate the passage of the Unknown Warrior back "home'", in which various walk-on characters – French and English, woman and man, army and civilian – stand and watch him pass, before turning back to their own preoccupations. While the stories of Evelyn, Ada and Hettie give a real sense of life in this eerie period, when a country began to rouse itself from sleep, these more portentous passages do nothing to illuminate what one would have felt, standing there, watching that coffin pass: the symbolism, that the novel would seem to want to catch and honour, escapes.