This is the third novel by Elizabeth Speller, a stand-alone novel, following the brilliant; The Return of Captain John Emmet and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, which feature a character in the years following WW1. This novel follows the fortunes of four very different men, just before and during the First World War.
Next year of course it will be a hundred years since the outbreak of WW1 – so the publication of this novel then is very timely, pulling no punches, it is an emotional, evocative story. The landscapes, characters and incidents of this novel will stay in the mind for some time, as the reader embarks on a journey that will take them back to the 1st July 1916. (The US edition of this novel is called The First of July).
“Some day he would steal a boat and row all the way to the sea. He sat on the bank of the river, where willows trailed on the surface of the water and where carp sometimes basked – a flash of silver just under the surface – and he threw a stone into the tiny scum of broken leaves and twigs, caught in the river’s slow bend. In high summer everything here was green – the water, the trees, the bright duckweed – and the smell; the beginning of slightly rotten vegetation, the deep smell of mud and fat eels who lived on flesh and everything mad with growing. “
Four men whose fates are destined to come together on that dreadful day of 1st July 1916 – the first and most disastrous day of the battle of the Somme, four men from different backgrounds with different hopes and dreams, Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Harry, and Benedict. Jean-Baptiste is a young French man, the son of a widow, he loves the river near to his town of Corbie, befriended by the local doctor, he feels betrayed when he finds his friend is also his mother’s lover, running off to Paris he find comradeship with a group of workmen –with whom he joins up when war comes. Frank, the son of a Devonshire coffin maker, has gone to London getting work in Debenhams department store, his one great desire is to own his own bicycle. Resisting the clamour to join up when war comes, Frank has been influenced by rabble rousing anti-war cries – however following the death of a friend – whose bicycle he is looking after – early in the war, Frank joins the 7th Hunts ( Cyclists) battalion. Harry is the son of a baronet, now living prosperously in America, newly married to Marina, he initially tries to get on with his life, but he is English and as war comes he realises he too must answer the call. Harry has not revealed the truth of his family background to his wife, or that he once had a brief love affair with the woman who later became his step-mother. Benedict is a musical scholar, the son of a Devonshire clergyman, enthralled by his synaesthesia he loves his music but fears he will never be as good as his gifted friend Theo. Theo persuades Benedict to join up, Theo becomes a pilot, Benedict joins he Royal Field Artillery, though they are able to share a cottage in France where Benedict continues to be concerned by his own complicated feelings for Theo.
Opening in 1913 – At Break of Day follows the fates of these men, as events lead them inexorably to the fields of France where on the first bloodiest day of the battle of the Somme their paths will cross.
“There were rumours flying like bullets, humming overhead with no fixed target. He wave had broken and here was its vicious undertow; with the casualties came all shades of truth and speculation. The unbroken wire, the broken promises (this was mostly the young ones who still believed in such things). All those shells, they said, the cross fire from machine guns that had never been taken out. Men had been mown
down as soon as they left the trench, or were left dying on the wire; they’d tried to hide in fox-holes but found them stuffed with corpses.”
In the opening section of book, we are introduced slowly to Jean-Baptiste, Frank, Benedict and Harry, I thoroughly enjoyed how the stories of these men were built up, I found myself thoroughly engaged with these characters, and began to worry for them as the story and the war took told. I particularly loved Frank’s and Jean-Baptiste’s stories – they are the characters I will remember best and longest – moving and unforgettable. Speller’s descriptions of the French countryside slowly torn apart by the ravages of war are fabulous, and surely must show a deep affection for the country.
This was an engrossing read, beautifully written, atmospheric and rich in historical detail. Taking the reader from London department stores, a Gloucestershire music school, the streets of New York and a small French town on the banks of the Seine in 1913 – to a field hospital in a French Abbey, to the filth and devastation of the trenches in the middle of the war, Elizabeth Speller faithfully blends fabulous storytelling with excellent research.
I seem to have been quite lucky – as I pre-ordered this book from Waterstones – the date of release apparentlythe 7th of November (today) but it arrived a week ago – so glad it did.