Elizabeth Day's second novel is the story of Caroline and Andrew Weston, whose only son, Max, a lance corporal, is posted to central Africa. When out on foot patrol in the Upper Nile State, surveying the African countryside to ensure the safety of the local villagers, something happens to Max that changes the lives of the rest of his family forever. Back home in England, Max's parents struggle to cope with the devastation they feel, especially his mother, Caroline, who has always loved him with a particularly deep intensity. As Caroline falls into a depression, relying on prescription drugs to numb the pain, Andrew tries to pull his life together, but he feels rejected by his wife who does not believe that his grief can be as profound as her own.
When Andrew's ninety-eight-year-old mother, Elsa, has a stroke and can no longer care for herself, Andrew feels that inviting his mother to come and live with him and his wife, will not only help his mother, but also encourage Caroline to pick up the threads of their life - however, although this may be a solution to Andrew's concern over his ailing mother, is this really the best thing for Caroline, who has always felt socially inferior to and rather in awe of her sophisticated and elegant mother-in-law? And when Elsa comes to stay and finds herself marooned in her daughter-in-law's spare bedroom, and reliant on a woman with whom she has never really become intimate, is this arrangement a good thing for Elsa?
Moving between the past and the present day, and touching on the years in between, we first meet Elsa as an anxious young girl, in awe of her father and frightened by his unpredictable behaviour, which has been caused by his ordeals in the Great War, and we come to see how some of Elsa's early life experiences have shaped her personality and have contributed to making her the person she is. We also learn of Caroline's and Andrew's early days together, of their marriage and the long awaited birth of their first and only child and, when tragedy strikes, we watch the beginning of what could become the disintegration of their marriage. (No spoilers - we learn most of this in the first part of the novel). And alongside Andrew's and Caroline's difficulties, we read of the painful decline of Elsa's health, where: "she could not even put her sadness into words...she became to all intents and purposes, mute; a sentence rubbed out; a pause at the end of a line; a space where there had once been a person."
Beautifully and thoughtfully written, this is a poignant, relevant and deftly composed story which explores love, loss, grief, motherhood, the divisions of class and the tragedy of war. Although very sad in places, I found this an absorbing and moving piece of fiction and read the entire book in one sitting, totally immersed in the Westons' story. Reading 'Homes Fires' has made me keen to obtain a copy of the author's debut novel Scissors, Paper, Stone which was published to critical acclaim and won a Betty Trask Award.