In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.
Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.
Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.
Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.
Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.
Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.
1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.
Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.
Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.
The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.
At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.
At Break Of Day can be found on Amazon
You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here
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