Monday, 18 June 2012

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You - Louisa Young

                    The title of the book comes from a pre-printed card which injured soldiers During World War One could send from their field hospital bed to inform close family that they had been injured and that they were in hospital.  The patient, or a nurse on their behalf, just filled in the blanks.  Louisa Young has had an interesting life -     and her other books include a biography of Scott, the Antarctic explorer who was coincidentally, her grandfather.

Set at home and abroad, the war becomes the catalyst for things that happen in the characters' lives.  Riley Purefoy, a working class lad from the (then) poor area around Paddington Station in London, is taken under the wing of an upper class family who live not too far away, near Kensington Gardens.  In turn he is fortunate enough to get to know a friend of the famly, an artist, who offers Riley's parents a chance for his son - he can live in, help out with his studio, sit for him, and in turn he will get a good education, and maybe even a chance at Cambridge, later .  Peter and Julia Locke, newly wed and in love, so in love, live in Kent; and then Archduke Ferdinand is shot.  Riley joins up.  During the course of his war his commanding office becomes Peter Locke, and thus their lives are intertwined.

There is much love in this book.  Love for soldiers who may never come home, love of self, love of others, unrequited love and the love that keeps the heart beating even when wishing to die.  (It is the upperclass Nadine that Riley has fallen in love with and she in turn loves him; but class intervenes and so Riley joins up).  The book jumps between the soldiers and those left behind, and I like this kind of telling.  I found myself curled up and wanting to get to the end, but not wanting to get there too soon, because then this lovely story would be over; and when it was, I had to re-read the last two pages the following morning.

As well as the love, there are heart-wrenching desciptions of life in the trenches; so much death, and a sinking feeling that actually, no-one knew what the hell was going on, certainly not those in charge.  The pages that describe a late "over the top" push are truly heart-breaking, because of course the reader already knows that this happened so many times, and so many were bound to die by following orders.  There are also factual descriptions of of the work of the great Harold Gillies - a man who worked endlessly attempting to re-build the faces and lives of those who had suffered horrific facial injuries. 

If you know nothing of the First World War, this is a good place to start.  If you believe in the triumph of love over death and adversity, this is a good book to read.  If you love a good tale, well told, this is a story to read, and re-read, and lend to friends.   I loved it.

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