A fictionalised diary is a difficult way to tell a story because although you hear the intimacies of one person’s mind, you get no one else’s point of view and none of the direct action. The story is delayed—you are told about events afterwards, once the immediacy has gone. It’s a hard format to pull off. Could Evie hook me?
I liked the character Evie from the start: an intelligent, well brought up girl from the colonies who heads to England to “put on the polish”. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to read her diary. She meets nice people on the boat, there are more nice people in England. She doesn’t seem, in any sense, extraordinary. Her diary in 1914, to be frank, is dull.
Do not be fooled, reader.
Evie will get her hooks into you and you will, as I did, need to stay up all night to let her finish. She tells you the story of her war, in quick snatches, as best she can, because she’s busy. It all comes on suddenly, the languid tea parties give way to English hospital wards and then to the tents at the front where mud is washed from the soldiers to uncover the suppurating wounds and every smashed face could be a brother or a friend.
The move from one story to the other is seamless. Evie is the same girl. It is the world that has changed.
I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I don’t like war stories. They’re often gung-ho heroism or an illustration of cruelty beyond the bearable. Evie’s War is different. Evie is a short step removed from the slaughter; we are told of the effects but left to imagine the causes. This is a young adult novel, after all. And the diary format cleverly tells of the results of the horrors without glamourising them, precisely because of the delay between the lived experience and the telling of it. Mackenzie gives Evie time, if not to process her thoughts, at least to reduce them to an essence. These reductions lose none of the flavour of the experience, just the bulk has gone.
After a while I got into the swing of this and I found myself living the things not said. Every clipped acknowledgement of an abomination carries a subtextal mountain for the reader to imagine. By 2 February 1917, when she posts this entry, I felt so invested in Evie’s life that these few lines were enough to make me weep.
My young man passed away at midday. A second looks likely to follow; Sister has promised she will have someone sit with him through the weekend so he need not die alone.
Evie is a girl with a Strong Moral Code drilled into her cultural core and she has a Stiff Upper Lip because there is no option. The way she Gets On With Things, under the circumstances, is not a fantasy. There are millions of women like Evie, all over the world, through all eras, doing what has to be done, cleaning wounds, holding hands, loving and losing, sympathising, giving hope, bearing it. Evie’s War should have been the war to end all wars and after reading this its hard not to think that, had the women been in charge, it would have been.