Thursday, 12 December 2013

Book Review: At Break of Day (The First of July) by Elizabeth Speller

"This is a novel about bicycles and coffin-making, the heyday of the great London department stores, and a hospital run entirely by women. It explores French river navigation, church organs, pigeons, international politics and early film, and finds philandering, friendship, deception, duty, and the terrifyingly random operation of fate." 


At Break of Day (published as The First of July in the USA) follows four men, Jean-Baptiste, a French teenager from the Somme who dreams of adventure; Frank, an ambitious shop assistant working in London; Benedict, an organ scholar at Gloucester Cathedral and Harry, a wealthy English industrialist living in New York. Beginning on July 1st 1913 as Europe teetered on the brink of war, we learn what leads each of these men to their involvement in the first day of the Battle of the Somme exactly three years later.
I was critical of the last book I read set in a similar time as I felt it had too many characters meaning I didn't find myself as emotionally invested in their lives. This was not the case with At Break of Day; the geographical scope of the novel, from the West Country in England, to London, New York, Paris and through France, told of the devastating impact of the war both in Europe and eventually beyond but having the story concentrate mostly on the lives of these four men made for a more intimate and intense story.
All four men have compelling stories and I looked forward to their individual chapters - although I must admit that the sensitive and conflicted synaesthesic Benedict was my favourite.
It's not a particularly ground breaking novel, the senseless slaughter of young men, hope, loss, duty and fate are all familiar in a Great War novel but this is such a well written book that the familiarity didn't breed contempt and it's a welcome addition to the books set in World War One.
Disclosure; I received a free copy of this book from the publishers through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

At Break of Day is published in the UK by Virago and published in the USA as The First of July by Pegasus.

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