Elaine di Rollo is the author of A Proper Education for Girls (first published as The Peachgrowers' Almanac), which was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book prize, the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award and the Guildford Literary Festival First Book Award.
"I can't remember the last time I read a novel that fizzed with so much energy, or swung so acrobatically between lightly carbonated comedy and pitch-black horrow."
"In a series of funny, moving set pieces, di Rollo explores the aftermath of the Great War through her cast of bewildered veterans."
In Britain, there is a long and boring tradition of novels about World War I, AKA the First World War, AKA The Great War. In my head, these mingle with the longer and even more boring tradition of novels about World War II. There are novels about the Blitz and the Home Front and the trenches and blackouts and evacuation, and I have not read a single one of them because I am not interested in World War I or World War II. I would go so far as to say that I actively avoid novels about wars — any novel, any war. I hate that shit. But then I saw Elaine di Rollo’s Bleakly Hall.
The Wonderland-esque cover drew me in, as well as the title (so dramatically dreary, so Gothic), but when the blurb informed me that the novel is set in a crumbling, bilious hydropathic, I was hooked. The story jumps between the hydropathic (in the novel’s ‘present’, after WWI) and the trenches (in the ‘past’, during WWI). Both settings seemed so real I could taste them. In a few years, if someone says to me “hey, have you ever visited a crumbling, bilious, post-war hydropathic?” (because I imagine that in a few years I will have achieved my goal of having the sorts of friends that ask those sorts of questions), then I’ll genuinely believe that I have. Bleakly Hall is that vivid.
Not surprisingly, I fell a little bit in love with the elusive and aristocratic Captain Foxley (because my other main goal in life, after having friends who ask bizarre questions, is to have a name like Lady Kirsty Foxley). But the real heroes are Monty and Ava, two women who worked as nurses on the front line in Belgium and have now found themselves thrown together again at Bleakly Hall. All the characters are exaggerated, myth-like constructs, and yet each one lives and breathes so that I can imagine them outside the pages of the book. These characters are all real people. They must be, because I don’t think I’ve ever read fictional characters I believed in so strongly.
Although the scenes set during wartime are darker, in that there’s blood and death and hideously gory injuries, the modern scenes feel more grim. There’s a certain glee to Monty and Ava’s manic yet heroic escapades, and Captain Foxley is a wartime hero. Afterwards, lost and aimless at the hydropathic, they are all so much sadder. The Hall may be bleak, but its inhabitants make it that way.
Bleakly Hall has everything I want in a novel: beautiful prose, believable characters, an intense setting, and an interesting plot. I love it so much that I wish I hadn’t read it, so that I could go back and read it for the first time. And like its characters, in reading the novel I have come away a changed person. I’ve now read many books set during the world wars — I particularly recommend those by Pat Barker and Sarah Waters — and I’ll be seeking out more. None of them have lodged in my heart like Bleakly Hall, but I’ll still keep looking. Thanks, Elaine di Rollo, for making me love that shit.