There is so much that’s promising and good about this book and yet overall, by the time I reached the end, I found myself slightly disappointed in it and in a way frustrated by it. It should have been great – and it was nearly great – but the ending………..oh no, no, no, no, no!
The story follows the lives of two young people, Riley Purefoy, a working-class boy with talent, intelligence and what I would be call “a glint in his eye”, and his initial friendship and eventual love for Nadine Waveney, whose middle-class family initially befriend Riley and then nurture him and his abilities. It’s set in the years leading into the First World War, through the trauma and tragedy of the destruction of that generation between 1914-1918 and then on through the aftermath of war. Riley is one of the first to join up and sets off in 1914, like so many others expecting to be ‘home by Christmas’. Riley somehow lives through years of the hell that is the trenches until he is injured in 1917 at which point he fills in the pro-forma letter provided by the army for his loved one.
In that lie about the seriousness of his injuries and in the absence of any words describing what those injuries are (and I’m not giving anything away here that you won’t get in the book’s blurb) the novel turns from the physical and emotional struggle for survival at the Front to Riley’s struggle for survival and recovery from his horrific wounds, and to the aftermath of that lie for Riley, Nadine and those who most care about them.
The book has of course been a hugely popular best seller and has gathered many plaudits in reviews, including short-listing for the Costa Prize in 2011 and there is so much about it that is really, really, good. From the start I liked Riley. He’s talented but flawed, in many ways the emerging “new” Edwardian man. But the times are not without their impact and the stiff class snobbery and prejudice towards working-class people takes its toll on Riley both before and during the war. The stiff attitudes and class barriers impinge on Riley’s confidence, chip away at the love between Riley and Nadine, and of course influence his own emotional response to his injuries and to his future. Nadine on the other hand is a beautiful counterpoint to Riley in many ways and it’s absolutely right that she falls in love with him. For all the wealth and privilege in her background Nadine is much less aware and much less encumbered by the norms and expectations of Edwardian Society than Riley is. When she rolls up her sleeve and takes a post nursing injured soldiers it’s not what you’d expect from her class, but it is exactly what you’d expect from Nadine.
The parts of the book about the chaos and savagery of trench warfare are superb. The relationships between the men at the Front give the reader a real sense of the different ways individuals coped, or in some cases did not cope, with the living hell into which they’d been led. What comes through in the book is the sense that these men know that the battles and attacks are utterly pointless, and that they have been devised by men like Haig displaying a breathtaking ignorance and lack of any humanity. There’s also that sense of an undercurrent for both men and officers, and while the lid stays on that rippling of change during the war, everybody knows that things will change drastically for those who survive to the end of the war.
There’s real emotion and love too, in the relationships between Riley and Captain Locke, between Riley and Burgess (his kind of working-class other self – the Riley he might otherwise have been) and between Riley and Jack Ainsworth (who is perhaps the key influence on Riley). The different relationships between the main characters at the Front, and again when Riley is recovering, are conducted almost at two levels. On one level there are the usual characteristics of relationships between men, filled with humour, drinking, lust, rivalry, jealousies, slights real and imagined. At another level however, there is such a deep bond between all of these men and it is the most secure and yet the most fragile of bonds at the same time – they are so dependent on each other and yet the nearness of death at every moment means that the instant that dependency is broken, they have to move on. For me, this portrayal of life at the Front was the real strength of this book.
However I also loved the emerging love story between Riley and Nadine, and though I found it a little difficult to follow some of the technical stuff, the passages about Riley’s recovery and recuperation in the military hospital are clearly meticulously researched and brilliantly written. Throughout the book is well-paced and tight. There are passages with description of setting or of a battle or of a medical procedure – you never get the sense that they are there for any other reason than they are necessary and they never feel out of place.
Overall I really did enjoy this book, but for me, as I said at the beginning, it didn’t quite reach the heights of a great book. I won’t give any detail about how the book ends but I didn’t think it worked. Like every other part of the book it’s well-written, but as I went through the last few chapters I found myself detaching slightly from the characters. It was almost as if what had seemed to me so human and believable and so alive in Riley, Nadine and the other main characters, began to slip back into the pages of the book. Sadly they became just that – names in a book – and there were words written about them on the pages in front of me, but it didn’t seem quite as powerful, nor quite as real, as it had done in the rest of the novel. Somehow I lost touch with the Riley and Nadine and their story, and I’m sorry about that.
The blurb on the back includes a review quote from Tatler magazine which describes My Dear I Wanted To Tell You as “Birdsong for the new millenium”. Well, for me, Birdsong it isn’t. But falling short of the heights reached by Sebastian Faulks’ wonderful book is no disgrace and while it might not be the new Birdsong, it’s still well worth a read!