I came across Elizabeth Day’s outstanding book ‘How to fail’ and the accompanying podcast a year ago and became a devoted follower of ‘failosophy’.
Aside from starting a mission to get us all to think differently about failure, she’s written a number of novels, I’ve read ‘Scissors, paper, stone’ and ‘Paradise City’, I’m determined to read them all so next on the list was ‘Home Fires’.
It tells the story of the Weston family, following the death of 21-year-old Max killed in action in South Sudan. His parents Caroline and Andrew struggle to cope in the aftermath. Andrew’s 98-year-old mother Elsa comes to live with them as she can no longer care for herself. Caroline has always wanted to please Elsa, the two have an uneasy relationship but now, for the first time, Caroline has the upper hand.
This is not an easy read, it’s a powerful look at grief, that explores the realities of war and the impact it has on those at home.
We first see Elsa as a little girl, meeting her father for the first time as he returns from World War 1. He’s damaged by what he’s experienced and seen, it is something he refuses to talk about. Elsa and her mother have to learn to live around him and his moods.
It is Elsa who suffers the most at his hand. It is the relationship she has with her parents that shapes how she is and how she shows her love for others throughout the rest of her life, she’s cold and distant.
It’s a theme that drew me in, it’s the ripple effect of the violence that Elsa’s dad suffered in the war. One that I haven’t really thought about before. We’re often told about soldiers suffering from PTSD, it’s talked about more, it wasn’t in in 1918. There’d have been no help for the soldiers, it wasn’t just the men returning from the fighting that were let down, their wives and children were too – what happens to Elsa shows just how badly. There is never an excuse for domestic violence.
Day highlights the long term, psychological, impact it has on a survivor long after the bruises have faded.
In her old age, Elsa’s health is deteriorating, she can’t speak and through her chapters, we experience her senility and her battle to get any kind of grasp of what is happening around her. Her frustrations at how she’s being treated, she’s haunted by memories of her father, which adds to her fear and confusion. It really is an effective way of imagining what it is like to live with that confusion as her mind deteriorates. Like I said earlier on, this book is not an easy, happy, read.
Caroline’s the grieving mother. In her mind she doesn’t believe anyone can feel her loss as acutely as she does, including her husband. She believes that she and Max were very close, and he told her everything. They were close, but she smothered him, tried to be his best friend and tried to be mates with his friends, no teenage boy wants that. She thinks she knows everything about her son and that she should be the only one allowed to paint what he was like.
I liked the way Caroline’s grief was explored, she numbs herself with pills, she pushes everyone away (especially Andrew), she’s angry and she needs someone to blame.
There are times when she’s just awful, really unlikable and, on occasion, deplorable. I could understand where it was coming from, could see her pain. I could sympathise with the family’s distress and the parents at the centre of it all, so broken they don’t know how to support each other.
This book took me back to more than ten years ago, it reminded of the families I’d met who’d lost children in the war in Afghanistan.
Day chose Sudan 2010 as her war zone, everything else about Max’s death reminded me of 2009/2010 in the UK. The endless coffins arriving at RAF Brize Norton, the processions, the daily news of deaths of British soldiers.
I was 24 at the time, working in Wakefield and Barnsley, in the space of six months I covered the deaths and funerals of five young men from the patch, they were all younger than me. I still remember their names and ages, can picture each service and know what songs were played. I can still see the grief etched on to the faces of their parents.
A year after her 18-year-old son James was killed, Sharon Backhouse spoke to me about the support the family had been given since, describing how families were left with nowhere to communicate. They were given a family liaison officer for a fixed period of time, following that there was aftercare where it was down to her to call an after carer if she had a problem – her after carer lived in Wales.
Sharon threw herself into fundraising after James’ death, two years on she had enough to unveil a memorial at his school in Castleford, she said it had helped her cope with what had happened. She always spoke openly about the pain, grief and anger.
When your child dies like that, they end up being taken into public ownership, when you want to curl up and hide away from the world, his picture is everywhere, there are tributes everywhere.
I mention this experience here because I think that’s Elizabeth Day captures in Home Fires, the horrific, sudden, violent death; the way people need to find an answer. The need emptiness after a funeral and families stumbling and feeling their way through grief.
It’s powerful and emotive read and one that left me with lots to think about.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm