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Can love conquer all?
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You - Louisa Young
Member Name: dee778
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You - Louisa Young
Advantages: Excellent writing, well researched historical detail
Disadvantages: Some medical scenes are a bit graphic
This book is constructed around two little-known details of WW1 history. The first is the postcard that the book gives its name to. To save time and unnecessary distress to loved ones back home, the army designed a standard postcard for injured men to complete. This allowed bad news to travel swiftly back to England without having to go through the censors, but also restricted the men to using an emotionless tick box system.
The postcard started with the words 'My Dear ........ I wanted to tell you, before my telegram arrives, that I was admitted to ...... Clearing Station on .........". The first blank was the space for the soldier to write the name of his wife/mother/lover; the second was for the name of the medical clearing station; and the third was for the date of his injury.
This postcard actually existed; the author found an example or an original postcard sent home by a wounded soldier in the Wellcome Collection in London. Moved by the terse words, and wondering what sort of story lay behind the brief details, she found inspiration and started writing her novel.
The postcard continues, providing the soldier with a tick box to indicate the severity of his injury. He could delete one word from the sentence - 'I have a slight / serious wound" - and this important option is really the centre of the book and a passionate love story. A small hesitation - an indecision between worrying a lover with the knowledge of a serious wound, or protecting her by leaving the word 'slight wound ' on the card, leads to a tangle of misunderstanding, betrayal and mistrust.
The second true historical story that is central to this novel is the work of Harold Gillies - a doctor who was also an Army Major. After experiencing front line fighting in the trenches, Major Gillies returned home to open a hospital in Aldershot which was dedicated to facial reconstruction; treating the facial wounds that were very common during trench fighting and carrying out pioneering work in plastic surgery to try to make his patients look as normal as possible. After the Battle of the Somme, Gillies treated 2,000 cases of jaw and facial mutilation and a key part of this novel is the telling of the tragic stories of some of the patients that were treated during this time.
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You begins with an introduction to the main character, Riley Purefoy. We meet him as a child in 1907 London. Riley is a working class boy who is whisked into the life of the upper classes of Kensington after being adopted by the wealthy and Bohemian Waveney family. Riley is a charming and handsome boy, and finds himself adopted by the family as a novelty and a pet. He comes to the house every day, working as a model and assistant to the family's elderly artist friend, who uses their attic to give art lessons to local children. Nadine is one of those privileged children who come to the house for lessons, and as the years pass and the war looms, the two young people start to recognise an attraction that defied the class barriers between them.
This traditionally romantic story is the backdrop to the main plot. As the war arrives and Riley is sent off to the Front, the novel really takes off. We read in depth about the horror of killing and the need for the men fighting to deaden emotions in order to survive. At the same time the book takes us back home to England as we follow Nadine and understand the frustrations of living the safe life of an upper class girl who can only wait for her man to return in tedious idleness.
As the story progresses, a few more key characters enter the plot; Peter Locke the Army captain who commands Riley's platoon, and his selfish society wife Julia both become major figures; Peter's cousin Rose appears as a nurse who works tirelessly to heal the soldiers who arrive in her care. She links to many strands of the story as she works with the charismatic Major Gillies, dealing with the trauma of facial disintegration at his hospital in Aldershot. The five characters of Peter, Julia, Nadine, Rose and Riley wind in and out of each other's stories. Sometimes meeting, sometimes passing each other by in the street, sometimes fighting side by side. Inevitably there are wounds and injuries, and the famous Army Postcard plays its part. Who is wounded, how they react and who helps the healing form the basis of this passionate love story in a way that makes it impossible to put the book down. Tension mixes with horror and pity as the plot plays out. Is a happy ending possible in such a time?
Louisa Young writes her novels with a real historical knowledge and authenticity. The technical descriptions of the facial surgery, the emotional descriptions of the despair of young men who found themselves turned into monsters by one bullet or bomb were deeply moving. One beautifully written scene describes the horrified reaction of a barmaid when encountering one of the soldiers who is in the middle of facial reconstruction; the scene is not rushed or overplayed and the sense of sadness and empathy is overwhelming.
I think that Louisa Young gives extra depth to the book by discussing the lives and hopes of the women left behind in such detail. From Julia Locke, obsessively keeping herself and her house beautiful as she waits for the return of her daydreamer husband; to Rose the matter of fact spinster who gives all of her love to the injured and dying men that she cares for; to Nadine, the beautiful upper class girl who just wants to play her part in the war. The book describes the understanding and empathy of these women with enormous sensitivity. They wait every day for a note or a letter from the men, but when these arrive they are often the terse and factual notes of a male who is unable to put his emotions down onto paper - somebody who has had all emotion buried in order to cope with the horrors surrounding him.
The characters and stories in the novel have stayed with me for several months. Unusually for me I can remember scenes and plots in vivid detail, which is definitely the sign of a good book.
I found this novel to be many things; it was above all an addictive read and a passionate love story. It was nauseating; some of the descriptions of death and injury are not for the faint hearted. Historically, the attention to small detail and the knowledge that I was reading a well researched book about pioneering plastic surgery, gave it an extra edge. In terms of the writing, I found it more inspiring and beautiful that any of the other similar books I had read by Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks.
For me the combination of historical detail, well rounded characters and a passionate love story all make it highly recommended.
This is Louisa Young's fourth novel. She is an English writer who has written for the Guardian and Marie Claire and many more publications. She also writes as Zizou Corder - penning the well known Lion boy stories for Young Adults.
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You was published in paperback in 2012 by Harper. It has 405 pages. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Novel Award and the Wellcome Trust Book Prize.
Summary: An excellent book about the hidden side of WW1