Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers has been sitting patiently on my shelf for a few months waiting until I felt it was the right time to read it. It sounded interesting and I’d heard some positive things about it, but it didn’t seem like a book that was calling out to be read immediately. Looking at the first couple of pages I noticed that it was written in third person present tense, something I often have a problem with, and this was another reason I wasn’t in any hurry to start reading. Well, it seems I was doing this book an injustice because Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers turned out to be a very moving, atmospheric novel and one I loved from beginning to end.

The book is set in a small community in Wales in the 1920s, just a few years after the end of World War I. The war has left many women grieving for a husband, a son or a brother and Non (Rhiannon) Davies is one of the lucky ones whose husband Davey has come home. But although Davey is physically unharmed he is still haunted by his experiences in the trenches. When Non finds him hiding under the kitchen table one morning she grows concerned for his mental health, but she knows that before she can help him she needs to find out exactly what happened to him during the war. Could a letter from a woman called Angela in London hold the answers?

As well as being a story about the aftermath of the Great War, this is also the story of Non and her relationships with the various members of her family. She has two teenage stepchildren to take care of, in addition to seven-year-old Osian who appears to be autistic (although this condition would not have been understood in the 1920s). Then there’s Non’s nephew, Gwydion, whose parents disapprove of his politics and his Irish girlfriend, and her mother-in-law, Catherine Davies, who makes no secret of her dislike for Non. Even the book’s minor characters are well-drawn and believable, from the Davies’ interfering neighbour, Maggie Ellis, to their tame crow, Herman.

One of the things I loved about this book was the way it looks at so many different aspects of World War I and what it was like in the years immediately afterwards. As well as Davey’s shell shock (what we would now call post traumatic stress disorder) we also meet other former soldiers with various physical or mental problems caused by the war. There are also a lot of men who are struggling to find work now that the war is over and are wandering the Welsh countryside in search of food and shelter. And we also see how the women are trying to cope with the loss of their loved ones and how some of them are in denial, unable to accept what has happened.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel set in Wales during this period and Mari Strachan’s descriptions of life in 1920s Wales are just how I would have imagined it. The book does use some Welsh terms which, unless you’re Welsh, may seem unfamiliar at first (the children call their grandparents Nain and Taid and their father Tada, for example) but I soon got used to them.

For a book where nothing very dramatic happens this was still a very absorbing story and after a slow start I found that I really cared about the Davies family and I wanted to read on and find out what would happen to them. At first I thought this was going to be a bleak, depressing book but it actually wasn’t because it’s told with a lot of warmth and even some humour.

Have you read any books about World War I? Which ones can you recommend?

14 thoughts on “Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers by Mari Strachan

  1. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like something I’d really enjoy. As for WWI books, I really enjoyed The Return of he Soldier by Rebecca West. And I keep hearing wonders about the Regeneration trilogy, though I’ve yet to read it myself.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Return of the Soldier too. I haven’t read the Regeneration trilogy but I’ve heard lots of good things about it so will probably get round to reading it eventually!

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve enjoyed the Charles Todd books about Bess Crawford, a nurse in the war (there are three so far). Todd is a mother/son writing team, and they also have a series about a vet returning to work at Scotland Yard, but I haven’t read any of those yet.

  3. Anbolyn says:

    I think the after effects of war are so heartbreaking to read about, yet so fascinating as well.This sounds like a good exploration of those issues.
    I really liked The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick. It’s a YA novel set during WWI about a girl who can see the future – she goes to the battlefield to try to save her brother.

  4. FleurFisher says:

    I’m so pleased you like this too. WW1 does seem to be less written about than WW2, in novel form at least, and nothing comes to mind that hasn’t been written already.

    I am not a lover of third person present tense either, but this one swept me away so I didn’t mind so much. The same thing happened recently with Jo Baker’s The Picture Book, which opens in WW1 but covers a century.

    And for Welsh lit, do you know Honno books I wonder?

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for letting me know about Honno. I hadn’t heard of them but have just had a look at their website and I can see a lot of titles I’d be interested in reading.

  5. Sue says:

    Have you read Birdsong, All Quiet on the Western Front or Journey’s End (a play)? To really understand what life was like in the trenches do go and see Journey’s End if you are able. When I went there was deadly silence, not a word or a clap – everyone was just stunned by what they had just seen. (Theatre is my other love!) I read Pat Barker’s trilogy years ago and really ‘enjoyed’ them.

    • Helen says:

      No, I haven’t read any of those, though Birdsong and All Quiet on the Western Front are on my list of future reads. The Journey’s End play sounds stunning. I think I’m too late to see it this year but hopefully it will tour again sometime.

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