Thursday, 30 April 2015

Book review - The Soldier's Wife by Pamela Hart

Kia Ora!

The 25th of April (ANZAC day in New Zealand and Australia) tends to be a sombre day of remembrance, and reflection. Particularly as this year is the centenary of the landings at Gallipoli. I attended the dawn service and the ten o'clock one in New Plymouth this year, and was moved by the great attendance and the solemn ceremonies. The playing of The Last Post and the national anthem (Australian as well as the New Zealand version) always strikes a chord within me.

I had been sent a book to review from Hachette, and it was set in Sydney during the first years of WWI. It seemed appropriate to read it on ANZAC day. The Soldier's Wife by Pamela Hart was released on the 28 April, and should be available wherever books are sold (as cliche as that sounds). It costs $29.95. The main characters in the book are women left behind by their enlisted husbands, and how they cope with the uncertainty of their men's return (and in what condition). The blurb on the back of the book states:
Sydney, 1915.
World War One brings tragedy and loss and sweeping change for those left at home.

Newlyweds Ruby and Jimmy Hawkins are sure their love will survive the trauma of war. Amid the desperate battles raging in Gallipoli, Jimmy dreams of the future they planned together. In Sydney, Ruby reads his letters full of love and longing.

But as weeks slip into months Ruby must forge her own new life. When she takes a job at a city timber merchant's yard, she is thrown into a man's world fraught with complications. And as the lives of those around her begin to shatter, Ruby must change if she is to truly find her way. Is she still the same woman Jimmy fell in love with?

Inspired by the author's own family history, The Soldier's Wife is a heart-souring story of love and loss and learning how to live when all you hold dear is threatened.

The cover looks like a stereotypical romance novel, complete with a taster sentence. "War will change them all." Honestly, it reminds me of a LaVyrle Spencer novel from the 1980s/90s, and I wasn't expecting anything great from the book. The blurb sounds a bit lovey-dovey too, so I'm expecting a bland romance from this book. I can honestly say I was surprised about how good it was.

I'm a History buff (and majored in the subject at university), so sticking to historic details is important to me. Small details like the weather, or exact clothing choices don't matter so much, but being accurate to the social expectations, and economic/historical events from the period is important. Hart has made a great effort to make sure her characters and their actions are historically correct. This is shown by Ruby's dedication to the social customs and niceties of the time, including being expected to cook, clean, dote on her husband, and give up the job she loves in order to have his babies, as well as her preoccupation with the length of her skirt, and how much ankle is visible. Although the expectation to give up her job in favour of reproduction duties is not explicitly stated until near the end of the book, it is implicit in Ruby's actions throughout the story, as well as in the lives of the other women Ruby's life is entangled with.

Hart does take great care to note that Ruby has to go home from her job for lunch, and isn't able to use the facilities (read toilet) while she is at work. It would be considered improper for a woman to share bathroom facilities with men at this time, and she notes the great care Ruby takes to calculate how much of her morning cup of tea will be ok, without causing undue hassle or accidents for her at work. These sorts of cultural norms from the early 1900s are carefully utilised to bring greater depth and historical accuracy to the story.

Although the story has plenty of unimportant details (like just about every time Ruby has to use the toilet), Hart does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the full impact of the brevity, longing and despair that WWI had upon regular people. A man who lost his son falls apart with the desperate grief, Ruby and Jimmy express their longing for the war to be over, the unending horror of their separation, and the deep fears every person felt for the unknown future. This novel really brings home the huge impact WWI had on ordinary citizens, and their various coping mechanisms. Characters thoughts and actions help the gravity of the situation be brought across to the reader, but the letters home from Jimmy, and the telegrams received by women about their men at the front drive the message home.

I'm really impressed by the depth of this novel, particularly as I started reading it with the intention of taking detailed notes, but eventually was dragged headfirst into the story and couldn't put it down. I read it very quickly, so it isn't a particularly difficult read. It is an engrossing one, with the characters and the plot creating a realistic representation of WWI for ordinary men and women. There isn't very much discussion about the actual battles in Europe (where Jimmy is based with his unit), but the effects of his participation are noted in reference to Jimmy and Ruby. This novel helps a reader truly understand how WWI affected the lives of every man and woman at the time, in large ways, and in small unconsidered ways. I'm really impressed by this novel, and will happily recommend it.

Does this sort of novel appeal to anyone else? I love historical fiction, and occasionally secretly indulge in romance novels. I hope you all enjoyed reading about this book, as I loved having the chance to review it for you. Look out for more book reviews in the future!

Until next time ...

Disclaimer: I was sent this item for free and I have been asked to review it, but I want to make clear that my opinion will not be influenced by receiving this for free. I think it is important I note when things I do receive for review purposes (i.e. for free), but also to state that I will still write an honest opinion of the product. If it is awesome, I'll say it is awesome; if it is rubbish, I'll say that too. Nobody wins from lying about the quality of something, so what's the point.