I’ve recently finished reading My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young. You’d think that everything which could possibly be said about the First World War has already been said, truth, in this instance, being considerably stranger than fiction, but Ms Young certainly gives Sebastian Faulks a run for his money – her novel is infinitely finer and more unusual than Birdsong.
Without wanting to spoil the book in any way, it concerns the burgeoning relationship between Riley, a working class lad and a young bohemian girl called Nadine. The barriers her family try to throw up between them are as nothing compared to the devastating effects that the war has on their lives.
What makes the book so heartrending and compelling is the challenging journey Riley embarks upon: he defies the rigid class system of the day in order to better himself and win the girl he loves, but he also has to draw upon superhuman resources to survive the war and come to terms with the consequences of it. Along the way there is also much for him to learn about the integrity – and otherwise – of human nature.
I think the reason My Dear was shortlisted for the Costa Prize and has chimed with so many readers is that in it Young provides a masterclass in the positive power of reading fiction. Her protagonists are beset with the worst things that life can throw at them, thus demonstrating the potency of creating characters with whom readers will identify, in order to punish them mercilessly, to grind them down, so that we can then witness the inspiring process of their redemption. To see someone triumph over suffering in a fictional setting convinces us that it is possible to overcome the afflictions that may trouble us in our own lives. So in terms of planning a novel or story, be aware of the power of setting up your hero in order to knock them down – as long as you chart their recover afterwards.
In that sense, My Dear is a truly inspiring read; it is also well-researched, informative and utterly beguiling – rush out and buy!