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?