Within the first 100 pages of Home Fires I was blown away by both the attention to detail and the writing prowess of Elizabeth Day. Her writing is beautiful in its metaphor, lyricism and flow. Her description of scenes is well constructed and allows the reader to be transported – to become a fly on the fictional wall. The prose is meticulously well crafted; it paints a clear picture of the emotions that Elizabeth is trying to portray. This is a novel that tells of parental bereavement and its on-going depression.
“In this room, it is only the spaces that have been left behind”
The initial emotions of a grieving parent are well imagined, accurately researched and handled with care. Home Fires tells of a family left in the wake of a soldier being killed in action in Sudan. Caroline and Andrew are the distraught and lost parents. Elsa is the 98 year old mother of Andrew who is suffering from dementia and the result of a stroke. Each has their own story to tell. The novel flits expertly between present day and Elsa’s childhood. We see how Elsa coped with the return of her father from the First World War and how Andrew and Caroline are coping with the death of their son.
Each character is well defined through their traumas. Day paints a grim picture of returning soldiers after the First World War. She accurately describes their despair and fear as they attempt to readjust to normality. Elsa’s father returned a very damaged man and he, of course, passes that damage on to Elsa as he beats her furiously. It lends a tense sadness to Elsa’s past and indeed, the entire book. The underlying aspect here is his belief that he is a coward, he cannot readjust and we’re left wondering whether he would rather have died. The idea of readjustment is the theme of the entire book.
“Because, after all, what is the point of a mother if she cannot protect her only child?”
The depiction of anger caused by trauma is a brutal cut that causes the emotion to bleed from the page and stain the reader. This anger is felt throughout each member of the ensemble. Most noticeably the parents of Max go through a turbulent time in trying to deal with their anger and the distance that Max’s death is pushing between them. A picture of fractured love is created by using Max’s death as a way of looking at these relationships, as if through a kaleidoscope.
When Elsa is brought to live with Caroline and Andrew as her health deteriorates the tension is ramped up to breaking point. There is a particularly wonderful section that highlights the fragility of life. It comes as Caroline and Andrew take delivery of the equipment to take care of Elsa.
“In the last few days, they have taken delivery of a bed with a sliding metal bar at one side, a mechanical hoist to lift Elsa off the mattress when necessary, several industrial-sized packets of baby wipes and a red panic button alarm device that is worn round the neck. So much paraphernalia. The process reminds Caroline of the provisions they had made for Max’s birth – stocking up on nappies and Babygros, building the cot, hanging the mobile – a natural symmetry between the beginning and end of life.”
My biggest issue with the novel didn’t appear until the final third. I felt that Day could have explored consequence a little more and break down the importance of Elsa’s history. While I found Elsa’s chapters interesting and enthralling, they lacked any purpose. It is almost as if Elizabeth wanted to write two stories and combined the two. The history of physical abuse for Elsa explained her attitude in life but was only a tenuous link to the story of Andrew and Caroline. So, while I enjoyed this backstory, I felt a little lost in its conclusion.
The same can be said for the consequences of certain actions undertaken by Andrew. While I won’t give away the situation itself, I will say that I was disappointed that Day didn’t explore the results. I was left feeling that Caroline was explored with the utmost intricacy. Every nuance of her personality and experience was dissected wonderfully, but Andrew was left floundering a little towards the tail end of the story.
Regardless, Elizabeth does a tremendous job of telling the reader how it feels to be emotionally bereft by the loss of a child. Her depictions are exact and this heightens the sadness of the situation. While Home Fires does suffer from minor flaws in the plot, it is a book worthy of your attention, if only for its intense ideas and beautiful prose.
Published by Bloomsbury. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.