THE SOLDIER’S WIFE
Author: Pamela Hart
Hachette RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
What a lovely novel. That’s the first thought that came to mind after I finished reading The Soldier’s Wife by Pamela Hart. Set in Sydney during World War I, The Soldier’s Wife brings to life a love story threatened by war and uncertainty, but driven by hope, passion and perseverance.
Ruby and Jimmy Hawkins are newlyweds full of dreams, love and passion. Married after a short courtship, they barely have time to get to know each other before Jimmy is sent away to war. They vow to keep their love alive, certain that it will survive war’s impact. In battle-weary Gallipoli, Jimmy writes letters to Ruby, keeping them happy, romantic and reassurring, never letting on how shocked he is by what’s happening on the front; in Sydney, Ruby reads them with longing while she makes a life for herself in the city, away from family.
For Ruby, war opens new doors (albeit it reluctantly at times). She takes a job as a bookkeeper for a timber merchant and is thrown into a man’s world … and not all the men are happy with the changes war has brought. While she applies herself to her new role, her concern for Jimmy is just under the surface, and as people around her lose loved ones, she hopes that loss will not be part of her story. Over time, work brings out a new independence and confidence in Ruby, but when Jimmy returns, injured and traumatised, he finds this confronting. Ruby is not the same woman he fell in love with and nor is he the same man she fell in love with … but can this young couple overcome this?
Hart delivers a novel that’s evocative, emotive and informative in terms of character, setting and plot. Her writing is assured and she aptly creates a sense of place – a bustling city struggling to stay on top of a rapidly changing society, a timber yard changed by a woman’s softness, and even a woman’s shifting role during wartime. I’m Sydney born and bred (though I now live in Perth) and I loved the historical setting that felt like home with a sepia tint.
While the story is at its essence a love story, it really is Ruby’s tale, as her identity shapes and develops to fit with the times, but also ahead of her times. Reading her story, I was intrigued by some of the details Hart included about what it meant to be a woman during this time (Hart addresses this further on her guest post 10 Things About Australian Women in WWI). It wasn’t easy and while women were expected to step up during the war, when it was over they were expected to return to the roles they’d occupied earlier. For women, the fight was far from over, when their men returned home. I sensed that Ruby’s strong sense of self would carry her through the emotionally tough times that would inevitably come from living with a former soldier. And on that point, while Jimmy has less of a voice in this novel, I felt that Hart showed insight in the way she depicted his frustration, helplessness and anger with war’s legacy for him.
In short, The Soldier’s Wife is a beautifully written historical love story that leaves a warm lingering feeling after the characters are farewelled. It’s one of those books that reminds you why reading is special.
Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. My copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.