Pamela Hart, The Soldier’s Wife (Hachette Australia 2015)
Romance novels really aren’t my thing, but Pamela Hart, as Pamela Freeman, has written a number of magnificent books in other genres, so I stepped out of my comfort zone to read her first venture into the world of historical romance. Also, it’s the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli, and in our house the schmaltzy, revisionist jingoism in the media has made it close to impossible to attend to the occasion. James Kent’s movie of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was a big crack in that frozen wall. The Soldier’s Wife promised another.
The book delivers on both fronts: as a story of the WWI home front, and as a all stops out romance.
Ruby has had a blissful honeymoon week with her tall handsome husband Jimmy, and then one last day in town before he is shipped off to Gallipoli, where they know he is going into harm’s way. (If I was being true to the period and to the book, I’d call her Mrs Hawkins, but after all I’ve been though with her, she’s Ruby to me.) Hailing from Burke, Ruby lodges with the friend of a friend in Annandale, a Sydney suburb, and gets a job as bookkeeper in a timber yard – the boss of the yard has a son who is an officer in the same battalion as Jimmy, which accounts for his willingness to take on a woman.
And it goes from there: Ruby lives in constant terror that the next telegram to be delivered will bring news of Jimmy’s death; she negotiates the perils of the all male workplace, where she fends off sexual predation and high-toned disapproval; having so briefly enjoyed married life and then left, she is strongly drawn to the handsome, muscular foreman of the yard; bit by bit she takes on more responsibility in the workplace and her relationship with her landlady becomes more solid.
I was surprised by some of the plot twists, and though in retrospect they were completely logical I don’t want to spoil them for you. I’ll just say that we are not spared the harrowing experience of learning of a loved one’s injury and death in battle; and the changing balance in power relationships between men and women that was brought about by the war is made painfully real, along with the ghastly difficulty in communication between those who went off to the unreal nightmare world of war and those who stayed behind in the all too real struggles at home.
The main characters are all Catholic – attending St Brendan’s in Annandale, where I have been myself more than once – and the moral world of the book is that of early 20th century Australian Irish Catholicism. I love this, because so much historical fiction shies away from such religious dimension, yet it is so important to an understanding of the times. It also adds a particular kind of intensity to Ruby’s temptations with the foreman – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I desperately wanted her to yield to temptation, and that the matter stayed unresolved until almost the last page.
The Soldier’s Wife is being promoted as an ideal Mother’s Day gift. I think my mother would have liked it, though she might have been unsettled by some of the discreetly worded but nevertheless explicit sexual references. I doubt if my father would have read it, but he would have enjoyed it too. It’s a good yarn. You care about the characters. And there’s the blessed relief of being able to think about Gallipoli through the experience of life-sized, complex people without the background noise of rascally patriotism.
The Soldier’s Wife is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.