London, 1916. While the war rages in the skies above and on the battlefields of Europe, conflict on the domestic front comes in the form of work, family, friendships and love.
Before the Fall tells the stories of Hannah Loxwood and Daniel Blake. Hannah, mother of two children, Alice, four and Teddy, two, has moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, Jen and Alec, while her own husband George fights. We meet Hannah while she is out looking for work.
A ship’s whistle sounds as I turn into East Ferry Road. The wind is sharp, demented; it tugs at my hair and flings grit into my eyes, so I have to squint and hold my hat down hard on my head. An old greengrocer is standing in front of his shop, arms crossed, with his apron flapping in the squall. I walk up to him, smiling.
‘Yes, miss,’ he says, smiling back and jangling the coins inside his apron pocket.
‘I was just calling about a job.’
‘What job?’ He’s frowning now and the coins fall silent.
‘Just any job.’
‘Sorry, dear,’ he says, turning to rearrange a display of small apples. A terrier pads out from the shop and the greengrocer shoos him back inside.
‘Thank you, anyway, sir,’ I carry on walking, head held high.
At home, Hannah has more problems: Alec makes unwanted advances towards her on a regular basis; she doesn’t really get on with Jen, and their father’s mental health is deteriorating while their mother struggles to cope.
Daniel has been given an exemption from the army because he’s a welder at a shipyard and his work’s consider essential for the war effort. He lives in a room next to a prostitute, Sonia. His wife died after miscarrying their third child and their daughter and son live with his sister and brother-in-law. We are told about Daniel’s childhood, specifically the odd relationship he strikes up with Lady Tolland, previous employer of his aunt, who allows him to borrow books from her library in exchange for his gardening skills. This is an arrangement which has endured, at least as far as Daniel is concerned, to the current day.
In Lady Tolland’s library – a small, crimson-papered room between the kitchen and the drawing room – he unloads four books: one from each trouser pocket and two from the saggy lining of his jacket. Lady Tolland is very old now, over seventy, he’s sure, but her eyes are as sharp as ever. What would she say if she discovered him around here? He imagined he could win her round…They could drive a fresh bargin. She always liked a bargin.
Hannah and Daniel meet because he frequents the café that Hannah manages to find employment in. He begins dating her friend, Dor, but it is not until the night Dor has to cover for someone at the munitions factory where she works and Hannah goes to meet Daniel to let him know that they really begin to get to know each other.
There is much to like about Before the Fall: the descriptions of London make the city practically a character in its own right; Dor is a fabulous character – colourful and vivid, along with her friends from the factory who provide an interesting contrast to Hannah; the tensions within the Loxwood family are believable and help provide some of the novel’s drive.
However, I had two issues, both of which relate to Daniel. The first is that the first book Lady Tolland lends Daniel is Jude the Obscure, a novel that is returned to several times throughout the narrative. This might only be my issue as I know Jude the Obscure well but the references to it seemed to be too frequent to me, signposting very clearly the sort of ending to expect. The second was that while Hannah’s narrative is in first person, leaving us in no doubts of her thoughts and feelings, Daniel’s is in third person subjective. It is clear at the end of the novel why this had to be the case, but I felt too distanced from him and didn’t feel that his actions at the end of the book married with what I knew of him before that point.
Despite my reservations, West can clearly write well and I look forward to reading her second novel.
Thanks to Mantle for the review copy.