Louisa Young’s novel My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is one of the most surprising reads for me this year. After having been disappointed in Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room and Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, I was a little worried this would be the third in a series of underwhelming contemporary WWI novels. Well, it wasn’t. I loved this book and could hardly put it down. Not only because the story was so engaging and the characters so likable but because Louisa Young is a skillful storyteller with a very unique style. It’s not easy to tell a WWI story, including all the common themes, and manage to do that in a fresh and original way, but that’s just what Louisa Young did.
Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney meet when they are still small children. Although from very different backgrounds – he’s a poor working-class boy, she’s from a rich upper-class family – they become friends and their friendship turns into love eventually. They both share a passion for art and both want to become artists. Just before the war breaks out, Riley works as an assistant to an artist. He sees Nadine regularly and they know they are in love. However, when her parents find out, they are not thrilled and make Riley understand that he isn’t welcome in the Waveney’s home anymore. Feeling hurt and insulted, Riley impulsively joins the army and within a few weeks is sent to the trenches. Nadine on her side, becomes a nurse. They keep in contact and write to each other regularly, even meet during one of Riley’s leaves.
Thanks to influential people at home and thanks to Peter Locke, Riley’s commanding officer, who understands that Riley is very cultured and intelligent, Riley becomes an officer in spite of his background.
Peter Locke and his wife, Julia, are the second important couple in this novel. The book moves back and forth between these four characters.
The first half of the book is intense and beautiful and drew me in so much that when tragedy strikes it made me gasp. What followed wasn’t an easy read. It was tragic but so well done. There are numerous ways to write about facial mutilation and the way Louisa Young did it was outstanding. She combines the themes of body image, art, and beauty, and weaves them together in way that I found extremely thought-provoking. Peter’s wife, Julia, is obsessed with her beauty. She thinks she has nothing else to offer and, although not yet 30, already wants to undergo plastic surgery. Her thoughts and her anguish mirror the thoughts and the anguish of the mutilated men. I also liked that Louisa Young set the book in an artists’ milieu at the beginning because it underlines that we humans are extremely visual beings and while we might not all feel the same about beauty, we all feel the same about looks and mutilation. Making beauty, even more than mutilation, a main theme was a unique choice and even daring. Daring, because Louisa Young doesn’t spare us. She shows us what those mutilations looked like, what they did to a soldier. And how the society reacted. Even mothers screamed and fled at the sight of their disfigured sons.
The second part of the novel focusses almost entirely on the surgeries and the despair of the mutilated men and on the toll the war takes on the minds of those who survive intact.
One of the strengths of the book is its accuracy, another one is that Louisa Young makes us care about her characters. Not only about the main characters but about the minor characters as well. She captures a society and an event, and thus achieves what the best historical fiction should achieve— make us we feel we’ve been there too.
Although My Dear I Wanted to Tell You tells a horrific story, it’s an amazingly beautiful book, full of sentiment and rich descriptions. Louisa Young has already published the sequel (The Heroe’s Welcome) and more books centering on the same characters are still to come. As she said in an interview: “I think I may be writing the twentieth century, through these characters.” I’m eager to read more of her novels.
My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the Fantasy novel Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. Discussion starts on Friday 31 October, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.