My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
Louisa Young
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Buy *My Dear I Wanted to Tell You* by Louisa Young online

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
Louisa Young
336 pages
May 2011
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Combining themes from Rebecca West’s novel Return of the Soldier with elements of the legendary Great War novelist Ford Maddox Ford, Young blends the chaos of the battlefield into the stresses of those who are left on the home front. Epic, grand and cinematic, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You showcases the bloody damage of World War One. True love is defined by experience, and five lives are irrevocably transformed by death as it slices through English life.

Combining the epistolary form with her own unique prose style, Young’s writing has an unusual musical cadence which may put off some readers. Her dense, fractured tone transports us into the battlefields of Passchendaele and onto the convalescent hospitals back at home where revolutionary plastic surgery techniques are remaking the lives of disfigured, wounded, and emotionally damaged young solders.

Unfolding in scenes as captivating as they are repellent, the novel begins in London in 1914, and the steady rumbles of war are about to cut a giant swath through the City. Civilization’s imminent destruction is the last thing on Riley Purefoy’s mind when he meets Nadine Waveney. With his blood running hot beneath his skin at the sight of her, Riley can’t quite believe that a “posh girl” like Nadine would want anything to do with “a common as muck boy" like him.

Attending art classes at the salubrious Bayswater studios of Sir Alfred, a dear friend of the Waveneys, Riley knows this is not his world. Art is considered for “nancy boys,” while the real men are eying the recruiting party up by Paddington Station, all happy to go off to France, blind to the inherent danger and convinced that it's all awfully romantic and noble to fight for your country. Deep down, Riley knows that only war can test the real measure of a man, that returning as a soldier back from war can make him “a proper man."

The bulk of Young’s story unfolds in the cold, greasy trenches of Flanders, where Riley is subject to the death and chaos. Amid the smells of soot, paraffin and blood and ever-increasing ruin, every second man fighting is either murdered or wounded. When Riley’s Captain is killed, the sophisticated and charming Peter Locke takes over, the two men forming an unlikely friendship that endures. While Riley’s tragic mates - Ainsworth, Ferdinand, and Bowells - are maimed or meet their deaths, Young mines and festoons her landscape with barbed wire that stretches across France “like a long suppurating ulcer.”

Although Young chooses to focus on war's destruction, this is not a depressing story but rather one of courage. She stitches her plot together through Nadine’s impassioned love letters to Riley and the anxious ministrations of Peter's beautiful wife. Julia, who with each passing day does her needlepoint, anxiously waiting her husband's return. Bred and trained to be like a pretty doll, Julia can't help but be envious of her cousin Rose, who works as a nurse at Queen Mary's hospital. There, Doctor Harold Gillies endeavors to confront the terrible realities of facial reconstruction.

Threading romance and art with what it means to be a soldier and a man, Young’s novel serves as both a dramatic window into the nightmare of war and a gorgeous love story reminding us of the extraordinary sacrifice of those men and women who endured so much in the face of death and desolation.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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