A few years ago, I was interviewing the French novelist Laurent Binet and asked him what the most powerful motivational force in his creative process was. “A fear of humiliation,” he told me. Writing is a profoundly exposing act, a public baring of the soul, and this is why so many authors hide behind irony or flippancy, unwilling to commit fully to the deepest demands of their art. I thought about Binet, who described an almost paralysing anxiety that people would laugh at his writing, when reading Alex Hyde’s debut novel. This is a book that walks along the dangerous edge between seriousness and portentousness, between high art and parody. That it largely works is down to the very earnestness with which Hyde pursues her artistic ends, the sense of a writer entirely committed to her project.
Drawing loosely on the story of Hyde’s own father’s birth and upbringing, Violets tells the story of two young women during the second world war, both of them called Violet. The first Violet we meet wakes in a Birmingham hospital with memories of an “enamel pail of blood”. She has had a hysterectomy after an ectopic pregnancy. Dreams of a happy family life with her husband, Fred, seem suddenly remote. What’s more, he is about to be deployed to Burma.
The other Violet is younger, in a small Welsh village, pregnant by a Polish soldier who’d been lodging with her family. On a whim, she signs up to the Auxiliary Territorial Service, who are “shipping out to Italy pretty quick. Naples”. Hiding her pregnancy, she flees to Italy. This Violet’s chapters are punctuated with passages of poetry addressed to the unborn child – “Pram Boy”. Some of these poems are more successful than others, with the occasional sense that they are there more as a signifier of formal daring than because they work either on their own as poetry or as part of the broader narrative.
This is a profoundly unusual novel, an intricately composed and thoroughly corporeal portrait of the intertwined lives of two women during the war. Hyde is clearly a writer of talent and ambition: Violets suggests a glittering career ahead.