During the lockdown, when sources of books were somewhat restricted, I ordered a mixed pack of second-hand novels from The Old Curiosity Bookshop in Loughborough. They send you a photo of the books when they have chosen them just in case you have already read one and then they despatch them by post. They sent me six stand-alone novels of which Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan was one. I had never heard of this author or this book before. I am so glad that I read it – it is a delight.
This is the first book in this month’s 12 in 12 Challenge in which I am reading books about Two World Wars.
This book is actually set in the summer of 1921. Non is a housewife in rural Wales whose husband has returned from the war with what we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the story of one summer the author explores a lot of different issues resulting from the recently finished World War I which she frames with Non’s housekeeping activities and her gossip with friends and neighbours.
Non’s husband Davey relives what has happened during the war by re-enacting it when still asleep each morning. A neighbour was lost in the war and his mother is convinced that he may still be alive but visits a medium to try and make contact. Eventually Non makes contact with someone who nursed Davey in an effort to find out what has happened to him and why he will not have a physical relationship with her and this leads her to visiting a ward of ex-soldiers with lasting mental health problems. The countryside is full of soldiers who have no way to make a living and have to beg. Women are beginning to look at the possibility of earning their own living as they did during the war and the political climate is changing.
In addition, Non is dealing with two stepchildren, and an adopted son who obviously has autism. She is proud of her herbalist father and the stories he has told her about her mother but she cannot reconcile these with what her sister remembers. Non has practiced as a herbalist herself and obviously carried out abortions for local women but her husband doesn’t want her to continue although there is still demand for her services. Her mother in law hates her and is very demanding and her father in law is developing dementia. Non also has a long-standing heart condition which means that she is unable to do many things that others can manage.
There are a lot of issues here which the author melds into the story in an excellent way. The book concentrates wholly on Non and her experience and the activities of her everyday life. With the changes in society that have come with the end of the war so Non has revaluated her life. She struggles to work out what is true and what is narrative which people believe to make them feel better about themselves and then she has to work out what to do in order to protect her little family. Despite some quite difficult subject matter this is an uplifting book.
War changes society and culture and this book clearly illustrates the way that this happened in the 1920s and how the effects of something that happened in France affect rural Wales. This book was clever and very well written. I was captivated by it and it makes an excellent start to my reading for this month about two world wars – I do not intend to spend July reading military history but to find books that illustrate other aspects of war and its effects.