Remembrance Day 1920: A wartime secret connects three women’s lives: Hettie, whose brother won’t speak; Evelyn, who still grieves for her lost lover; Ada, who has never received an official letter about her sons’ death, and still believes he will come home. As the mystery that binds them begins to unravel, far away, in the fields of Northern France, the Unknown Soldier embarks on his journey home. The mood of the nation is turning towards the future – but can these three women ever let go of the past?
A bit about how I came to write Wake
Growing up with a father who was very interested in history and a culture that was full of tales of the first world war, I felt I had some sort of grasp on what it was all about; the misery, the mud, the rats, the botched battles, the poets, the young working class men conscripted in their droves, a generation wiped out on the morning of the 16th of July the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
It was only when I grew older and began to be interested in the struggle for women’s rights in Britain that I started to think about women and the war. In 1913 the suffragettes were terrorists; public enemy number one, by 1918 and the end of the war, after so many of them had entered the workplace, a large proportion of them had been given the vote. What had changed for women in those years?
In writing Wake I knew I wanted to write about the period from the female perspective, but I also knew I didn’t want to write about those women, like Vera Brittain, who headed over to France to nurse the troops. I wanted to focus on those who by age or circumstance were left behind to carry on with their lives. I was interested in what I thought had been overlooked in many accounts of the period; the domestic, the sense of loss, the myriad tiny moments upon which a life might hinge.
I knew I needed a frame for my story; the period was too overwhelming otherwise. While researching for the book I visited the Somme battlefields for the first time and there, confronted by rows upon rows of headstones, I realized something viscerally I had only understood as a bare fact before; none of these bodies were brought home. I began to think about the impact this decision must have had on those who were left to grieve. It was then I knew I wanted to write about grief, about how it might be possible to begin to heal your own loss when surrounded by those who were grieving too.
When I learned about the burial of the Unknown Warrior I knew I wanted the five days from the exhumation of the body in northern France to its burial in state in Westminster Abbey.
I began to weave the story of three fictional women; Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, around that journey, and to try to inhabit those five days in November 1920.
The Hammersmith Palais.
I first heard about Hammersmith Palais from my mum. When I was small she would tell me stories of growing up in High Wycombe in the early 1960s, and sneaking out as a teenager to spend Saturday nights there, dancing to Joe Loss and his orchestra. Once, she said, during a drum solo, she had so lost herself in the music, that when she opened her eyes there was a ring of people around her, standing, clapping, watching her move. As a result, the Palais was always synonymous for me with a certain sort of youthful freedom and escape.
When reading about the aftermath of WW1 for my novel Wake, the Palais cropped up a lot. It opened in November 1919, and quickly became the place to go for thousands of young, and not so young Londoners, desperate to dance off the hangover of four years of war. On its opening night over six thousand dancers thronged the floor. Built from an old skating rink, it was the largest dance hall in Europe, and unlike anything anyone had seen before. Everything was sumptuously decorated inside–there were two stages, each made to look like a miniature Chinese temple and hand-painted columns and panels patterned with Chinese lettering spelling good luck. I like to think of good luck surrounding those six thousand dancers; after four years of war, loss and rationing, they needed it.
Then there was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They had a lead singer and trumpet player called Nick La Rocca who moved ‘like a filleted eel about to enter the stewing pot’ – and their fastest song, Tiger Rag clocked in at feisty 252 bpm . (This is actually true! My husband didn’t believe this and made me play it to him while he timed it with a metronome.) The ODJB, as they were known, were booked for opening night November 1919, and the crowd loved them, cheering and stamping for more. They got it: the band were resident for a year- making records and breaking hearts. You can get a copy of the record they made during that year’s residency on ITunes and elsewhere– it’s the one that Ed gives to Hettie in the book.
But behind the splendour of Palais and the excitement of the paying punters lies another story, that of the dance instructors – young women and men who sat in ‘pens’ – waiting to be hired for sixpence a dance. Anyone who came to the Palais without a partner could hire one of these instructors. I was fascinated by the social implications of this transactional relationship: the bear pit of post war dating and mating must have seemed especially vicious if you were a shattered veteran or a woman for whom it seemed all of the eligible men had been blasted away. And what of the instructors themselves? I searched a long time for accounts of what their life was like and then, when I had all but given up, I found one by chance – in a novel called ‘Women of the Aftermath’ by Helen Zenna Smith, written in 1924. Late in the story her character becomes a dance instructor at the Palais, and in her account it was cold, ill paid and exhausting, each dancer having to dance up to twenty-five dances a shift. It made sense to me that behind the glamour and the excitement and the hope lay something seedier, less entrancing. It reminded me of the film of ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They.’
And so the characters of Hettie and Di took shape, young women who dream of escape but who end up penned in instead – or turning in ever decreasing circles around the floor.
I was never lucky enough to see the Palais, or dance on its famous sprung floor, which is a shame, because I’m partial to a bit of a shimmy myself. It stood until 2007 and was torn down in 2012 and a new building erected on the site. There are student flats there now. Sometimes, if I’m passing, I’ll stand at the corner and imagine the ghosts of all of those thousands of hopeful people, queuing up in 1919; the whoops as Nick La Rocca took to the stage, those young women and men sitting waiting in their pens to be hired, and my teenage mum, dancing the night away.
You can still just see the original writing on the wall if you take a tube on the Hammersmith and City line back into London. Palais de Danse it says in big, weather-faded lettering. I think its still there.
Press and reviews for Wake
Shortlisted for New Writer of the Year at the National Book Awards 2014.
Shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown Award.
Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
‘A masterclass in historical fiction’ The Observer.
“Hope’s unblinking prose is reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir ‘Testament of Youth’ in its depiction of the social and emotional fallout, particularly on women, of the Great War.” New York Times.
“A compelling and emotionally charged debut about the painful aftermath of war and the ways – small, brave or commonplace – that keep us going. It touches feelings we know, and settings – dance halls, war front, queues outside the grocer – that we don’t. I loved it.” (Rachel Joyce, author of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY)
“A tender and timely novel, full of compassion and quiet insight. The author gives us a moving and original glimpse into the haunted peace after the Great War, her characters drawn by the gravity of the unmarked, the unknown and perhaps, finally, the unhoped for.” (Chris Cleave, author of THE OTHER HAND)
“Wake is powerful and humane; a novel that charms and beguiles. Anna Hope’s characters are so real; flawed and searching, and her prose so natural, one almost forgets how very great a story she is telling.” (Sadie Jones, author of THE OUTCAST)
“Superb … beautifully crafted” (Irish Times)
“A moving novel about the aftershock of the 1914-1918 conflict. … unlikely many will prove better than Anna Hope’s Wake” (Sunday Times)
“Intricately researched and beautifully written, with the kind of restrained yet emotional prose one expects from a seasoned author. Its characters, too, have a depth and quiet tragedy one rarely finds in debut fiction. In this centenary year commemorating the outbreak of war, there’ve been many novels about the conflict:Wake is without doubt one of the best.” (Hannah Beckerman – Huffington Post)
“Compelling, gripping, emotionally charged” (Stylist magazine)
“Wonderful” (BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour)
“Absorbing and timely” (Daily Mail)
“Wise and insightful” (Sunday Express)
“A hit, we think!” (Simon Mayo Bookclub)
“Impressive and poignant … moving and rewarding” (Woman and Home)
“Poignant … stays long in the memory” (Choice)
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the biggest hardback debut of the year” (Alexandra Hemingsley, Radio Two Arts Show)
“Poignant and powerful, it’s a must-read.” (Fabulous Magazine)
“Anna Hope reveals a tragic connection between three women living i 1920s London in her impressive debut” (Good Housekeeping Magazine)
“A very simple book which elicits very complicated emotions …luscious, impressive, moving.” (Julia Kingsford)
“It’s an unusual story, told well and written delicately. The women and the world they inhabit are beautifully drawn. It tells us that life can continue to be lived even after terrible loss.” (RONAN BENNETT, Whitbread award-winning author and creator of Channel Four’s ‘Top Boy’)
“Wake is a staggeringly good first novel, packed with soulful insight, universal emotions and those intimate small details which add more depth and meaning to a picture than the brutal sweep of a broad brush.” (Lancashire Evening Post)
“Wake is that rare and beautiful thing: a first novel that sings with such power and grace that it lifts itself effortlessly from the pack. Powerful, passionate, compassionate, it marks the rising of a new star in the literary firmament. Anna Hope is here to stay.” (M.C. Scott – Author of Rome and chair of the Historical Writers Association)
“Compelling, gripping, emotionally charged” (Stylist magazine)
“Wonderful” (BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour)