Ever since studying World War One literature for A Level English Lit. I have been fascinated with the subject from the horrors the men on the front line went through and their camaraderie to the way families coped at home in Britain. I have studied a range of poetry with various views from the patriotic idealism of Rupert Brooke, the violent realism of Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon's sarcastic dark humour. Previous WWI novels I have loved include Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill and Pat Barker's Regeneration series, so My Dear... had a lot to compare with and I was interested to see if I would learn anything new in this novel.
It took a while to get in to, but I am pleased to say it made me think about this period of time in a new way and the characters are certainly ones you care about. It begins with young, working-class Riley Purefoy with a talent for painting being semi-adopted by a middle-class family and falling in love with their daughter Nadine Waveney. Her mother is not impressed and Nadine is kept away from Riley. Confused and angry with a couple of situations (I don't want to spoil anything!), Riley signs up to go to France and once there he becomes fully involved in the horrors of war.
Although working-class, Riley has received a good education and is soon promoted through the ranks, keeping in contact with Nadine with a series of letters. In the meantime, Nadine has become a nurse at a London hospital, with Riley visiting whenever he has leave. On one of his visits they confirm their love for each other. When Riley returns to France, he is seriously injured and while recovering he tells a terrible lie which changes his and Nadine's lives...
Running alongside this story is a narrative about Riley's CO - Peter Locke's - family. His cousin Rose is involved heavily in the war, nursing in France and then at a hospital in Sidcup specialising in plastic surgery, while his wife feels helpless and feels the only way she can help is to go to extreme measures to look beautiful when her husband returns from the front. Eventually all the characters lives become inter-twined, with interesting contrasts between the women.
My Dear... has all the usual ingredients of WWI novels - male friendship and camaraderie, sometimes getting blurred with homosexuality, dehumanisation of the men fighting, the growing alienation between the men at the front and civilians in Britain who remain innocent of the horrors of war, families unable to understand the suffering of the soldiers once the war is over and the dichotomy between the positive, patriotic feelings at the beginning of the war, to the despair four years later. Interestingly, as Riley signs up to fight he is faced with the choice of service for one year or the duration of the war. He ticks duration as he thinks that will be the shorter option.
I found the change of female roles in the war to be explored more fully in this novel than in previous ones I had read. Women like Nadine, who had lived a sheltered life with a good education and are just expected to marry into money, had the opportunity to leave home and help out in hospitals, nursing the wounded. It made me realise what a catalyst the war was for women to have more freedom in choices, from relationships with men to being able to dress differently.
Rose and Nadine both take their roles in the war seriously, while Julia who has only ever known how to be an obedient daughter and wife, does not find her calling and instead spends her time in London shopping for pretty clothes and researching beauty treatments. Ironically, she damages her own face herself trying a chemical peel, while Riley is coming to terms with his facial injury.
I was fascinated with the part of the novel set in Sidcup Hospital and the real-life Doctor Gillies. I didn't realise procedures such as facial re-constructive surgery were carried out during that period in time. The treatments were both horrific and heroic, with experiments being carried out to repair the brave young men with terrible injuries.
This book is very moving and at times shocking. Louisa Young writes from both male and female perspectives very well and the story is obviously very well researched, with her own emotion and feelings shining through. This is obviously a subject she cares deeply about and from her Q and A at the end of the book I can see why. The characters are still in my mind, days since completing My Dear... which can only be seen as a sign of a powerful and beautiful story.
My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You is part of the Richard and Judy Book Club reads at WH Smith and more information including a video interview with Louisa Young can be found on their website here