” They all wanted Tom unchanged, I could see that now. Lady Stansbury, Margot, even young Bill Stansbury. Tom was dependable, Tom was a rock. Tom was their link to the past, something that had survived, something solid to build on. No one wanted to believe there were any cracks. (Ch.12, Tom, p.380)
Set in 1919, The Year After concerns Captain Tom Allen, a soldier who has recently returned to England following the First World War. Feeling alone and unsettled in austere post-war London, Tom accepts a timely invitation to spend the Christmas season at Hannesford Court in Devon, home of the Stansbury family. The visit draws him back to the high society haven where he spent his pre-war years.
Behind the majestic decor and aside from the genteel façade, the war has been very tough on Hannesford. A son lost, another maimed, both daughters robbed of advantageous marriages. It seems inconceivable that the delicate, unworldly hostess, Lady Stansbury, could have survived such accumulation of sorrows. She asks Tom of a favor—to speak at the memorial service of the family’s golden boy, Harry. While Hannesford contrives to restore a festive air, the place, once full of boisterous young men who frequented raucous parties, is strangely empty.
Sturdy, honest folk. Yet I knew what Anne had said was true. I too would have found it much pleasanter to believe in an Eden free of serpents. (Ch.10, Tom, p.302)
The return to Hannesford prompts Tom to re-examine a dark, long-forgotten episode, just before the war, that occurred the annual grand ball in 1914. The death of a German professor marred the idyllic days of the house before the outbreak of the apocalyptic war. With the help of Anne Gregory, once the house nurse but now living in the vicarage, he uncovers a web of secrets and deception—and suddenly it dawns on him that none of the Hannesford inhabitants, or those were revered, is what they appeared to be. The family rather buries their shameful secrets along with the dead.
They were all the past. Nothing was the same. They were fragments of the world I’d thought we were defending. Yet it was gone already, despite those endless ranks of wasted lives; gone without anyone really noticing its passing. (Ch.8, Tom, p.255)
The Year After is not a war story, but one of love, loss, and the struggle to adapt to the world in the aftermath of the most destructive of conflicts. The bulk of the plot actually occurred back in 1914, unfolding at the expense of Tom and Anne’s remembrance and soul-searching. It is told in first person from Tom’s perspective, but much more intriguing, and revealing, despite the brevity, is the voice of Anne, whose accounts intersperse Tom’s. Her narrative fills in the gaps of happenings at Hannesford Court in Tom’s absence. Redolent in the pages ate lofty themes of unrequisited love, blind war pride, bereavement, and the whole british awkwardness as a result of a deliberate denial of reality and truth. The book shows how memory can be an uncertain witness and emotions can affect time’s malleability. Davies’s prose is a feat of lyricism, evocative of the period and life.
401 pp. Hodder/Hachette UK. Paper 2012. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]