I got a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review – thank you very much! That fact, of course, didn’t influence my opinion in any way.
In 1910, no one believed there would be a war with Germany. Safe in her affluent middle-class life, the rumors held no significance for Victoria either. It was her father’s decision to enroll her at university that began to change all that. There she befriends the rebellious and outspoken Beryl Whittaker, an emergent suffragette, but it is her love for Gerald Avery, a talented young poet from a neighboring university that sets the seal on her future. After a clandestine romance, they marry in January 1914, but with the outbreak of the First World War, Gerald volunteers but within months has gone missing in France. Convinced that he is still alive, Victoria’s initial attempts to discover what has become of him, implicate her in a murderous assault on Lord Kitchener resulting in her being interrogated as a spy, and later tempted to adultery. Now virtually destitute, Victoria is reduced to finding work as a common labourer on a farm, where she discovers a new world – that of unimaginable ignorance and poverty but also of unrestrained opinions about almost everything. It is only her conviction that Gerald will some day return that sustains her through the dark days of hardship and privation as her life becomes a battle of faith against adversity.
I like history and IWW is an interesting period, especially if told from the perspective of a woman. After all it was the beginning of modern times – including but not being limited to modern warfare, modern farming and the emancipation of women.
Victoria, the main character of the book, was a unique girl – intelligent, educated, young enough to be still impressionable and flexible in her beliefs but old enough to distinguish between the truth and the shameless government propaganda. I really liked following her around – I started and finished this novel in one evening which means the narration was, as far as I am concerned, really captivating. Dance the Moon Down has also an interesting format, beginning and ending with couples viewing a war memorial, and it is told by an omniscient narrator with the perspective of the wartime eyewitness. According to my very unprofessional view the author got all the details right, it was obvious he’s done a lot of research concerning the period and captured l’air du temps pretty well.
The novel features a cast of solid, well-written female characters, especially the secondary ones. I really appreciated the fact that Victoria could learn as much from those poor, uneducated farm girls as they could learn from her. Also she went through a tremendous transformation as the story progressed. The war forced her to grow up pretty quickly, open her eyes, and take on many new roles, as it did for many women. Still it was surprising that she didn’t grow a tiny bit bitter in the process, all things considering. Depressed, yes but never bitter.
There’s also Beryl, one of Victoria’s classmates and friends, who is an active suffragist. Even though at first we see her as just your typical embodiment of the man-hating feminist war changed her as well – Beryl fell in love, Beryl helped Victoria with her search for any news about her husband and even with her illicit romance…what a pity Beryl also disappeared very conveniently near the end (I don’t want to spoil anyone so I won’t say anything more but I did wish her another fate).
Of course there were some flaws. Overall I regret Mr. Bartram didn’t have a more pronounced sadistic streak and didn’t make Victoria suffer a bit more because, from time to time, her story reminded me trials and tribulations of a princess from a fairy tale. True, her hubby went missing and she was left completely alone but, while she was waiting for any news and then actively looking for him she met only nice, helpful people, mind you exactly when she needed them the most. She never encountered somebody truly nasty, a person, be it a man or a woman, who would gladly abuse a lonely, defenceless creature for the sheer pleasure of it. Victoria was so patient and so faithful that Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, could practically learn from her. She was pure perfection – kind to those less fortunate than her, dilligent and brave. Unfortunately it made her also a bit unreal.
My other carping concerns Victoria’s husband Gerald Avery. He was supposed to be a poet and he was supposed to earn quite a decent living just by publishing his work. Well, I don’t doubt that a young but truly gifted poet could have achieved that much at the beginning of 20th century; still it would be far more believable if he pursued another career at the same time, e.g. teaching or lecturing or had some providential family inheritance to help him sustain himself and his young wife. Connected to that: I found it a bit strange that Victoria didn’t have one single book with her husband’s poems (he was, allegedly, published more than once before the war so where had all those author copies gone?) and she never quoted any of his poems, mentioning them only once in the book and only in very general terms. If my husband was a poet-soldier, missing in action in a foreign country, I would never part with his work.
Finally let me add that a narration from Gerald’s POV, intertwined with that of Victoria and supplementing it, would, in my humble opinion, make this book far more interesting.
A nice story, skillfully written which I read with pleasure but also one which I found a bit too smooth and too improbable in the end. If you like reading about the IWW period and you prefer books which end with a big, sugary HEA against the odds you might want to read this one. I recommend it for historical fiction buffs and lovers of the turn-of-the-century England.