The fragmentary form of this novel – a two tiered depiction of world war 1 and its aftermath – mirrors the sundering effect of those tragic times when so many individuals were left with the legacy of having to put back together again all the scattered and charred pieces of devastation the war left in its wake. This is the task set for Effie the novel’s heroine who, during the course of the novel, becomes a kind of paean to the regenerative female principle in life.
Effie, with her wry wit, her naïve diffidence, her laissez-faire insularity, her sweet tooth, works as housekeeper for Captain Laurence Greene, who for ten years has slowly been dying of mustard gas poisoning. She seems to have come to terms with the death of her fiancé Joe, a private in the same regiment as Laurence who was killed in the fighting, supposedly dying a heroic death. But Effie remains oblivious – she lives in a state of wilful ignorance for the early part of the novel – that Laurence is and always has been in love with her. When Laurence dies, at the beginning of the novel, he bequeaths to Effie a mission and a number of surprises. The mission is to go to France, to Ypres, to visit her fiancé Joe’s grave.
On the train she meets Henry, another reticent convalescent of the Great War. There’s immediate chemistry between her and Henry and finally Effie seems to acquire a possible future, except her front of wilful ignorance is still inviolable – perhaps because first she has to revisit the past and make order of it before she can allow herself any ongoing pathway.
Effie’s pilgrimage to France, a kind of series of annunciations, is now interspersed with flashbacks to the war, from the point of view of both Laurence and Joe. Most of the best writing in the novel is when we’re in the trenches or on the battlefields of the war. The author does an admirable job of evoking the terror and horror, the comradery and emotional inner life of a soldier’s life in those unprecedented times. “He slid into a shell hole. Small things crept in the busy earth. He stared at the blood, a startling slash of vermillion in a sepia landscape. He watched its progress, marbling in the mud. Dirt fell in fragile showers that fizzed like fireworks. The mud was in his eyes, in his ears, in his mouth. The dirt ground against his teeth.”
All the central characters have a defining hashtag, a recurring motif. Effie has her cakes – a frivolity at the beginning that cleverly takes on a more restorative symbolism as the novel unfolds; Laurence throughout clings to his faith in narrative; Joe’s spirit creature is the bird. There’s a great scene when Joe is called upon to collect a homing pigeon: “As they were reaching the outskirts of the village a shell tore through the barn just behind. Suddenly the cage on his back was full of thrashing. The basket was full of feathered frenzy. Panic flailed in the box and then in his own chest. The wings seemed to be beating inside his rib cage and Joe couldn’t breathe.”) All three – cake, narrative and birds – will eventually reveal themselves to be purveyors of regeneration.
I don’t want to give the plot away only to say that it abounds with compelling twists and turns all the way through to the end. Now and again there’s a regret that the war wasn’t written in a more linear continuous form as perhaps a little of its gripping tension was lost by fragmenting the narrative. However there’s an organic authenticity about the fragmentation which poignantly evokes the damage the war did and the challenge of putting everything back together it threw up in its nightmarish afterglow.