Tuesday 23 August 2022

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Not So Quiet" by Helen Zenna Smith

In 1930 author Evadne Price was asked by her publisher to write a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Instead, she wrote a serious work, based on the now-lost diaries of Winifred Young, who served in France during the war as a volunteer ambulance driver.

As Helen Zenna Smith, Price wrote a supposed semi-biographical account providing an incredible female insight to the horrors of World War I. Not So Quiet criticises nationalism and the social, physical, and psychological effects of the war upon England's youth, men and women.

Praised by the Chicago Sun-Times for its "furious, indignant power," this story offered a rare, funny, bitter, and feminist look at war. First published in London in 1930, Not So Quiet ... (On the Western Front) describes a group of British women ambulance drivers on the French front lines during World War I, surviving shell fire, cold, and their punishing commandant, "Mrs. Bitch." The novel's power comes from Smith's outrage at the senselessness of war, at her country's complacent patriotism, and her own daily contact with the suffering and the wounded.

At the heart of the novel is the juxtaposition between the families of the young women back in England, who are puffed up with pride for what their girls are doing and the visions of glory that come with it, and the realities of the women’s lives on the front. Details are not skimped here and we are plunged into the filth, the squalor, and of course the unrelenting gore of transporting the critically injured soldiers from the battlegrounds to the war hospitals. Quickly Helen becomes bitter about her mother’s constant boasting about what she is doing and, when Helen is sent home ill for a time, she is faced with repeated encouragement to get better quickly and get back out there, if not to do her duty then to make her mother proud.

One of the most compelling aspects of the book is seeing Helen gradually stop caring what her family think. In particular, there is the matter of hair. One of Helen’s new friends, Tosh, has chopped her long hair short, to the horror of some of the other volunteers. How ghastly and unfeminine! But in the filth of the situation, dealing with long hair is nothing more than another inconvenience in a life filled to the brim with them. The difference with hair is that you can do something about it. Yet, Helen is reluctant to do the same, and that reluctance comes from one place: her mother. The moment, about halfway through the novel, when she does chop her hair off, is an important symbol of her increasingly fractured relationship with her family, and more importantly, her family’s expectations.

When Helen is at home, ill, she becomes determined that she will not go back to France. She will not even get a "cushy" job in England. She is done with war, absolutely.

Helen’s sister, Trix, is also a "war girl," and comes back to England pregnant and in need of an abortion. The first thing she does is beg Helen not to tell her parents that she is in the country. Helen is against the abortion – not for moral reasons, but because it is dangerous, and girls die having them – and asks whether the man might marry her. Trix declares it could be any one of three men, and so Helen agrees to raise the money needed. There is only one thing to do. Go back to the front.

It is important that this is the reason that she goes back. She does not do it for glory, nor duty, nor to make her family proud. She does it because her beloved little sister needs her help, and because Trix also understands the horror of war. They were close anyway, but they are bound even tighter by the shared understanding that their experiences separate them from their family back at home. They have seen things that their parents and aunts will never see, and could not begin to comprehend.

This is a wonderful exposition of the crimes of the First World War. Suffering and the pointlessness of war are at the forefront of the novel. The denouement is heart-rending. It must be read.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 66. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s.

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