Although the time covered in this complex novel is only five days, Hope manages to cover a lifetime unraveling and exposing the mysteries of the human personality. Three women are the central to the novel. Delicate Ada is a working-class English gentlewoman whose world seems to be disintegrating. Ada provides the perfect contrast to independently minded, Evelyn who just wants to think about her lover, Fraser, lying beside her on the bed as the shifting patterns of light cross his face. Hettie instructs dance at Hammersmith Palais; for sixpence six nights a week, she gives the returning soldiers a little solace and consolation in a harsh and uncaring world.
Hettie is forced every week to give half her wages to her mother, while heartbroken Ada—married to Jack for twenty-five years—has begun to see visions of Michael, her son who died in the War. When an enigmatic young man who looks just like her son arrives at Ada’s front door, ostensibly to sell dishcloths, the boy—also once a soldier—calls for Michael. Both the boy and Ada are positive that Michael is still in the room with them. Convinced she’s actually conjuring Michael from the dead, Ada’s head buzzes as though “a swarm of bees were trapped inside.” Becoming steadily more isolated from Jack, Ada’s begins to feel she’s just a silly old woman getting old, running after ghosts, shouting for her dead son on the street.
Although Ada, Evelyn, and Hettie never meet, Hope works her tale through the interweaving of each one's story into a gossamer whole. Unfolding events trigger memories and recollections of the past. Hope allows us to construct the psychological and emotional makeup of her heroines’ minds. We learn much about Ada, Evelyn, and Hettie through the thoughts of the other characters, such as Ada‘s conflicted Jack, who has grown apart from his wife, and also damaged Rowan Hind, a private who served with Captain Montfort, Evelyn’s brother whom she barely speaks to but is somehow connected to Michael’s death on the Western Front.
The chief pleasures of the book are the vivid, evocative, poetic language and Hope’s gift for inner dialogue—the stories these women tell themselves—which reveals them to us. Evelyn trudges through her days processing disability claims for returning wounded soldiers, fearing becoming “a bitter, old spinster.“ She remembers the baked, hard yellow-green of a London summer and the times she spent with Fraser until he, too, was killed. When she meets Rowan Hind again, “his small face, his jerking body, and his hanging useless arm,” Evelyn finally learns the truth about how these men were driven to the brink of insanity by the war, an insanity that neither Ada’s tender ministrations can cure, nor Hettie, who acts as her family’s societal antithesis and seeks to divide her world into the "then" and the "now."
Although the sudden shifts into various character's points of view are little disconcerting at first, this allows the past and present to commingle and adds to the search for meaning in an ambiguous and unreliable world. From the low-housed streets that separate Shepherd’s Bush from Hammersmith, Hope’s low-key and rather grim tale gracefully interweaves the journey of the Unknown Soldier as he moves from the graves of France to London and to the celebrations that will quickly become Armistice Day, a new tradition that is already dripping with “oily reverence”—a day that in Evelyn’s eyes is just another opportunity for “those with blood on their hands to play fancy dress in their murderers suits.”
In a narrative that builds around these broken young men who served and suffered the horrible psychological effects of the War, Michael’s fate in particular darkly hovers over the dull grey days of Ada and Hettie, ultimately bringing that psychological darkness to Evelyn’s final, terrible confrontation with her brother. Perhaps the messed-up lives of the three women mirror the disorder and impending doom that faced us as the Great War fractured English society, damaged a whole generation of young men, and allowed the social and cultural orders to shift from the firmly hierarchical and patriarchic to the nebulous in less than a generation.