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The Poppy Wife: A Novel of the Great War


The Poppy Wife: A Novel of the Great War

If you like to live in your books --- feel the weather, the pains and the frustrations --- then you will love THE POPPY WIFE. What makes it so special is its subject and point of view. In our history, the Great War was fast eclipsed by the next war and ejected from our cultural memory, yet it stands as a major turning point with consequences the world continues to deal with today. Caroline Scott takes all of that and wraps it in a story with a perspective that shifts from warrior to survivor to spouse, and does so with elegance. Pull up a chair, grab a drink and settle in.

Set after the Great War, but with constant journeys back into the war, we follow the lives of three brothers: Francis, Harry and Will. As the only surviving brother, Harry works as a grave photographer who struggles with survivor’s guilt that is complicated by his love for his late brother’s wife, Edie. When a photo of his presumed dead brother arrives by mail, Harry and Edie begin to question what is real. Is Francis still alive? Are the people Harry meets imagined, conjured up by his experiences? While they search for the truth from town to town, the reader is witness to the devastation that the war has wrought --- both on the people and on the land.

"The research is impeccable. Scott’s description of the war is pure history, yet she has spun the hard, cold horrors into personal struggles to which the reader can relate."

Meanwhile, Scott puts on a great display of literary finesse. Amidst the images of mud, plaster and mental anguish, she treats readers to beautiful poetry and prose that moves and inspires. We meet a lyrical, young Francis quoting Yeats as he woos Edie: “Fasten your hair with a golden pin, and bind up every wandering tress.”

Imagery, biblical symbolism and even names add texture and depth to these characters. Follow St. Christopher and find him not only on a medal, but also on a map, in their minds and even in the strength it takes to carry his list of graves. The ever-present “plaster and dust” become a motif that evokes total destruction, while “that week” when Francis comes home on leave becomes the focal point of when everything went wrong. Reading this book too quickly is like drinking a great wine in a shot --- it still will be good, but you’ll miss a lot of the flavor.

The research is impeccable. Scott’s description of the war is pure history, yet she has spun the hard, cold horrors into personal struggles to which the reader can relate. In one chapter, she notes that there is a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair: “She is pointing up at the architecture; he is staring at the blanket over his knees.” In that one line, she captures the disconnect, or rupture, that so many feel after the war. The soldiers don’t know how to return to normalcy, and their loved ones can’t understand what they went through. They all seek the truth and possess parts of it, yet they struggle to put the pieces together. In two of my favorite passages, Harry experiences a nightmare and then Edie comes to him.

Amidst the narrative, Scott often ends up in the minds of her characters and demonstrates just how elegantly she writes. Harry’s friend, Gabriel, must design a war memorial that represents all things to all people --- a daunting task, indeed. Her description is a perfect metaphor of Harry’s personal struggles. He imagines it is “like a shock wave stretching out from the cemetery with the gun emplacement at its center. It ripples out from that place, beyond the pages of his atlas, expressing itself in monoliths and mausoleums and menhirs, in arches and obelisks, in catafalques and cruciform --- and, in their multiplication, these things mean nothing and everything.”

My only tiny disappointment with the book is the lack of a Table of Contents. While this might seem trivial, the history and the writing are so good that I often found myself going back to find something from earlier reading. Without a TOC, it became a chore.

Having said that, I found the rest of my experience with Harry, Edie and friends to be quite enjoyable, and I look forward to seeing what Caroline Scott has in store for readers next.

Reviewed by John Vena on November 22, 2019

The Poppy Wife: A Novel of the Great War
by Caroline Scott