Violets by Alex Hyde: Inventive story of motherhood in wartime Britain

Hyde draws attention to how women’s lives were considered interchangeable

Alex Hyde brings the era to life with choice details

Alex Hyde brings the era to life with choice details

Sat, Jan 29, 2022, 06:00


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Alex Hyde


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Split narratives can give great tension to a book. As the reader switches from one character to another, there is an innate sense of mystery. Why are these stories being told together? How will they eventually cohere? In her debut novel, 
Alex Hyde uses this technique successfully and in a way that feels original. Violets follows two different women, both named Violet, as they try to cope with trouble in their respective lives in Britain towards the end of the second World War.

The first Violet is a young married woman whose first pregnancy is ectopic, resulting in the death of the baby (or babies, as a doctor reports in perfunctory style) and a hysterectomy. Violet is left in her hospital bed to wonder things like, “Can an unborn child be dead?” as her husband quickly returns to his overseas posting in the Pacific: “I’ll be off then, love. He said it as if he was popping to the yard.”

Violet is left alone in the aftermath of the tragedy while her friends and sisters get on with their lives, the whole country on the brink of celebrating a coming end to the war: “It was as if [her sister] Elizabeth had won the game and Violet was stuck. Even though she was the eldest, married and settled in her own home.”

In neighbouring Wales, meanwhile, another Violet is dealing with an unplanned pregnancy after a short affair with a Polish solider: “He’d broken it off last month. Redeployed, Violet couldn’t remember where. He’d had a good war, was planning to stay on, had a good chance of a commission.”

Desperate to keep the news from her mother, Violet joins the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British army, and takes a posting to Naples in the hope of buying herself time as she figures out what to do. In Italy she finds temporary relief and a sense of solidarity through friendship with co-workers. But time moves too quickly in the heat and bustle of a chaotic Naples, a city reeling from the effects of war.

Poignant symmetry

There is a poignant symmetry to the women’s stories. Babies – unborn, unwanted, mourned, impossible to conceive – link both Violets in a narrative that is skilfully progressed over the course of this quietly surprising book. The parallel lives are mirrored in the structure, which comprises short sections that switch between the women with no marker except white space on the page.

In later stages this causes deliberate confusion. The narratives are so closely entwined that the reader is occasionally wrongfooted, mistaking one Violet for another.

This melding of lives echoes the messiness, the sense of loss that is felt, in particular by the second Violet as she decides whether to give up her baby. Through careful depiction and a sparse prose style, Hyde draws attention to the way in which women’s lives were considered interchangeable by state and church, how one mother could sub in for another: “Yes, Violet thought. There would be endless boys, for all time. She could almost feel them in the room, stickypawed, crowding round.”  

The narrative style lacks variety – the author favours short, plain sentences. But this is offset by frequent passages of poetry, lyrical odes or nursery rhymes, delivered to the unnamed Pram Boy. These are mixed seamlessly into the story with graceful transitions, heightening the emotional impact. In Violets, the things that are left unsaid are as important as the given details.

Inventive form

Hyde, born in Birmingham, is a former Daunt’s bookseller who now lectures at University College London. Violets is a fictional reimagining of the story of  Hyde’s father, drawing on family mythology and personal archives. Its inventive form, deceptive simplicity and convincing portrait of loss have echoes of Max Porter’s novels, and indeed Sara Freeman’s Tides, published earlier this month. Lucy Caldwell is another touchstone, both the searing stories of modern motherhood in her collections Multitudes and Intimacies, and the deftly rendered war backdrop of her upcoming novel, These Days.

Hyde brings the era to life with choice details: “She wore one of those side caps you could buy when your training was done. It sat at a jaunty angle on her head.” The landscape, whether home or abroad, is equally vivid: “Here, the epic skies/the ochre-glow, the bronze, the burnish and the rot.”

Split narratives are often held together by a common location. Hyde instead chooses a shared backdrop of war and the difficult journeys of two women whose lives are forever entwined: “And when you grew up and found her, she knew. When she saw you for the first time, standing on her doorstep, her first thought was that you bore some resemblance to her eldest son. The one she had after you.”