My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is one of those novels that I fear. It’s a book so sublime that I’m scared my ham fisted words will never do it any justice. The all powerful ‘They’ are hailing the novel as the new Birdsong, this is likely more because of the First World War setting than anything else. However I’m sure that Faulks would be pleased with the comparison. Louisa Young does more than a remarkable job giving her characters a unique and wonderful voice loud and profound enough to rise above the cacophony of artillery.
The ‘rub’ for this novel is that it’s no mere tale of a soldier on the front lines, but Young also deals with the thoughts and actions of the women left behind in Blighty. What Young achieves wonderfully is giving each of her cast a remarkably unique voice. Of course there’s plenty of early 20th century speak as the “boys on the front line give the Hun a bally good biffing” but there’s a break in convention when many of the cast voice their concerns in a very modern way.
Many novels set in this period become stymied by a conservative language and attitude, whereas our primary cast here throw away any concern in what people would think and speak their mind. We see each of the five central characters each head out on a personal journey while their lives intertwine with subtlety.
Riley is our leading man who heads out to fight for the Allies when his world crumbles around him in London. He leaves behind the love of his life, Nadine who is left pining for the love that constantly teeters on the edge of death. We also have Riley’s Commanding Officer, Peter and his wife Julia. Then there’s Peter’s Cousin, Rose.
Their interactions are told smartly in the form of correspondence and each letter is written exquisitely. Having said that, even their personal encounters are written with such a deft use of the English language that you can’t help be floored by Young’s words. It’s in her depictions of the suffering that these characters go through that most affect the reader with such prose as, “Last year we had many smallish hopes, made many smallish attempts, suffered many smallish failures, and we died one by one. This year a change of plan! One big hope, one big push, one big fuck-up, and we all die at once”.
When the book isn’t grabbing your mind and brutalising it with the horrors of war, it’s capturing your heart and soul with the tales of love to be and not to be. Riley and Nadine’s love transcends lust and fondness and becomes its own character. When describing Riley’s feelings of Nadine as he sees her again after some time, Young writes, “The most astounding effort stopped him folding his arms, his coat, his body, his legs, his heart around her”.
Love is a major theme throughout as Riley is tested by an injury one day and is sent home to where his love is waiting for him. It’s at this point that the books slips into an even darker place and the reader is subjected to how a war destroys your body and mind, whether you’re sticking a bayonet into the Germans or sitting at home attempting to patch up the broken. The latter is particularly highlighted by Rose’s tale as she works as a nurse for a hospital in Sidcup that deals with facial reconstruction surgery.
It’s not just Rose that is beaten down by the effects of war. Each woman goes through significant moments that leave you with the firm realisation that it wasn’t just the men that suffered, but the many forgotten women, too. Julia’s tale in fact is the breaking down of her confidence and mind as she misses her husband dearly.
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You captures the tragedy of war perfectly and the personal relationships between the reader and story creates a captivating story that will likely stay with you for months to come, if not forever. Even people that would usually avoid war based fiction will find the romance and the cast hypnotising. After this novel, Louisa Young deserves all the accolades that she will, no doubt, receive. A truly beautiful, haunting and unforgettable novel.