Women on the verge: when the ‘home fires’ burn out
Review: Declan Burke
Northern Irish author and journalist, Elizabeth Day, won the 2012 Betty Trask Award for her debut novel, Scissors, Paper, Stone. Her latest, Home Fires, opens in 1920, with young Elsa unable to understand why her mother has brought her to a Westminster Abbey commemoration of the men who died during WWI. Her father, Horace, who fought in France, is not with them. When Elsa and her mother return home, Elsa is sent to her father’s study to ask if he would like tea.
From his violent reaction to her, we understand that Elsa’s father is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Day introduces a contemporary character, Caroline, who is depressed and taking anti-depressants to cope with a tragedy. Despite the efforts of Andrew, her husband, Caroline lacks the will to get out of bed. We are told of the first time — 30 years previously — Andrew brought Caroline home to meet his parents.
Caroline, who was a neglected, working-class child, was intimidated by Andrew’s middle-class home, and his mother, Elsa.
The competition between the two women, for Andrew’s affections — and, later, Caroline’s son Max — defines the relationship between the women.
Elsa, now widowed and senile, does not even remember son Andrew’s name, but does remember her childhood: the physical abuse Elsa suffered at her father’s hands. Elsa’s father wasn’t simply suffering from shell-shock. He had been invalided out of the war as a coward; in his shame, he took his frustrations out on the young Elsa.
Caroline’s depression is caused by the death of her son, Max, killed in South Sudan after stepping on an IED while on manoeuvres.
Home Fires is the interlinked tale of two women brutalised by war. Their connection is Andrew, Caroline’s husband and Elsa’s son; but their inability to cope with reality — Caroline taking anti-depressants to fend it off; Elsa suffering memory loss — is a bond. When the helpless Elsa comes to live with Caroline and Andrew, Caroline is roused from her catatonic state to help with Elsa.
We expect the story to be Elsa and Caroline helping one another to deal with their pain.
It’s to Elizabeth Day’s credit that she turns her back on the conventional narrative to explore the realistic consequences of war and violence on the women who, to cite the song to which the novel’s title alludes, keep the home fires burning.
Day chooses the tough option at every turn, with the result that the novel becomes a powerful and, at times, heartbreaking account of Caroline and Elsa’s inability to deal with their crises. The prose is crisp and forthright, particularly when Day is describing the variations of violence, although she has a piercing eye for a telling phrase or a poetic flourish — Caroline’s depression, for example, is “the encroaching shadow, the slow puddle that spreads across her consciousness like spilt ink.”
Home Fires is powerful and haunting, a thought-provoking testimony to the fortitude of those women and children who cope with the repercussions of war.
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