Another gripping read from Elizabeth Speller. I’d already enjoyed The Return of Captain John Emmett and The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (reviews here), so I was delighted to be able to read At Break of Day, courtesy of NetGalley. I read the US edition, which is called The First of July. The second title gives away the subject matter: the battle of the Somme, 1916. Anyone expecting a superficial mud and blood story would be pleasantly surprised by this.
The two earlier books were set in the post-war period and involved a mystery which sent the investigator back to the war. This one reverses the process. It begins in 1913 with four young men from very different backgrounds all destined inevitably to be on the Somme battlefield three years later. The tension lies in wondering what will happen to them and which, if any, will survive. It’s economically written, yet by the time war breaks out, we know enough about each of the protagonists to care about them and their fate. Once July 1916 is reached, the book does become hard to read because of the horror of the situation. I found it all very realistically described (I’ve read Farrar-Hockley and others on the subject) and the characters and their behaviour totally believable.
There are occasions when the paths of the four main characters cross, and some curious coincidences which don’t become clear until the end of the book, but these are not strained or even emphasised; just among the ‘strange meetings’ which can happen in wartime. There are even cameo appearances by William Bolitho and Laurence Bartram, who feature in the two earlier books. Between now and the end of next year we can expect a flood of books commemorating the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. If you prefer to read fiction, you could hardly do better than read this. In my opinion it is much better than Birdsong, that overrated and tedious novel.