Appropriately enough for a novel from an Observer journalist Home Fires could have been culled from recent headlines. A young British soldier is killed in a foreign war, his mother descends into depression while his grandmother, suffering from dementia, needs full-time care. However, the real pleasure of this novel is on a much smaller scale, its focus on a single family and the tragedies shaping that family through several generations.
Home Fires is a domestic novel where the wider world is kept at a distance but its intrusion is destructive. Moving between the comfortable middle-class home of Elsa Brompton in Richmond as her father returns home, brutalised and violent, from World War One to modern day Malvern where Caroline Weston, unable to cope with the loss of her son (a soldier killed in Africa), leaves her husband to care for his aged mother, Elsa. The family relationships, and tensions, are acutely portrayed. Elizabeth Day lacks the psychological darkness that Maggie O’Farrell would bring to such a situation but she has a penetrating way with description, an eye for observation that pins a character down. The insecurities each character brings to their relationships with the others are charted with an anthropologist’s zeal, defining how the family has been constructed from anxieties and misunderstandings but with a humour (and empathetic sensitivity) that makes this small, fictional, world familiar.
Home Fires captures the century of attacks that middle-England has survived on their world outlook. From the violence and loss of World War One, as undermining as the loss of class deference, while Elsa retains some of the prejudices of her Edwardian childhood into a time when a working-class girl, the young Caroline, can marry her son. Caroline is the outsider who has learned to fit in but that has left her insecure and anxious, her husband notes “this habit she has of picking up phrases like a magpie picks up glitter.” Elsa’s son, and Caroline’s husband, Andrew, is just as shocked by the younger generation when he sleeps with a younger colleague: “She starts to moan and then to whisper in his ear what she wants him to do to her but the words sound harsh and rasping and wrong. Where did she learn to be like this? he wonders.”
It is not only in a family where the generations misunderstand each other and fail to communicate.
Elizabeth Day brings a remarkable focus to this novel, she creates a world that could be claustrophobic but it is built on such a vividly honest novelist’s eye that it draws the reader in. This is very much a novel of observation, but so central is the astute perception that it begins to undermine the characters’ role. The characters are imaginatively drawn, but given little to work with (except for whatever human interest news angle they are defined by; grieving mother, dementia sufferer) and the plot only requires that they react to the tragedies they are given to deal with.
Any Cop?: A well written domestic drama that throws a new light on newspaper headlines. Hopefully her next novel will draw from more personal inspiration.