‘The Heroes’ Welcome’ by Louisa Young is a sequel to ‘My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You’, the story of the lives of Peter, Riley, Nadine, Julia and Rose in the lead up to and during the Great War. I recommended the first novel to my friend, journalist Lesley Gillilian who is writing a wonderful novel partly set during the second world war and she said it was the best book she’d read all year. I agree and think the sequel is equally as good.
Many themes are covered; Louisa Young explores the characters’ struggles with class difference both in love relationships and relationships between officers and men in the trenches. There’s a fascinating contrast between Riley’s facial reconstruction by a pioneering surgeon in a military hospital and the devastating consequence of the botched face-job beautiful Julia undertakes to make herself look younger and more alluring to her traumatised husband, Peter. Yes, rich women were having their faces covered in acid one hundred years ago to ‘improve their complexions’, so it is all the more shocking to think that equally damaging ‘beauty’ procedures are promoted today. Conversely, it is all the more amazing to see the developments in plastic surgery – extraordinary events like the 3D printing of prosthetic limbs.
Other women’s issues are covered: Rose works as a nurse, and post-war is offered a scholarship to train as a doctor – almost unheard of then. She is torn. Surely her role is to look after others, rather than remain unmarried and follow her own career path? All Julia can do is be beautiful – she didn’t get an education. With little support, it’s hard for her to be a mother and a wife. Nadine struggles hard against her mother’s disapproval to marry ‘beneath her’ and become an artist.
The most striking element of both novels is the way the impact of war is shown on all the characters in different ways – psychological scarring, physical disability, ruined marriages and their affect on the next generation, alcoholism as well as the strong determination to survive and flourish against the odds. The first book shows the damage as it occurs, the second shows continuing trauma and steps to recovery. I found both books an emotional read and became very involved with the characters, so wanting ‘everything to be all right.’ Of course, as a reader, I would have been disappointed if recovery had progressed easily in a linear way. A hanky is definitely required – a retro cotton one, Dad or Grandpa sized. About two thirds of the way through ‘The Heroes’ Welcome, there’s an event that gave me such a shock, I felt almost I was witnessing it, as part of the fictional family. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘That can’t be happening…things were just getting on an even keel.’ It’s a masterly stroke on the part of the author, brilliantly written.
The book does end on a hopeful note although things are not neatly tied up. Maybe Louisa Young will write a third novel charting the story of the same characters and their children up until World War Two. I can’t wait.