When Violet wakes up in Birmingham Women’s Hospital at the start of Alex Hyde’s debut novel her first thought is of what has happened to the enamel pail of blood, because she hates the idea of someone else emptying it: ‘Was that what it meant, lifeblood? Placental, uterine. She had seen the blood drop out of her into the pail. It came with the force of an ending.’ A messy business, miscarriage.
Across the country in Wales, another Violet is dealing with a different sort of mess. ‘No, still nothing. Violet pulled up her knickers and swilled out the pan. Every time she would check. Every slight feeling of wet.’ But there is no blood, although she usually has her period at the same time as her mother. ‘They never said anything, but they would know, taking bowls of water with bicarb of soda upstairs, the rags soaking under the beds, the water turning redder as they slept.’
One Violet has lost her baby, or rather babies, present and future. ‘The doctor coughed. It seems that it was twins, Mrs Hall...The foetuses had been surgically removed, the doctor said, along with her womb.’ The other Violet has found herself expecting a baby: an encounter with a Polish soldier billeted with them to convalesce has left her with a body swelling like a balloon and a problem she can’t share, not with the Pole, who is long gone, nor with a mother who never even says goodnight.
It is early 1945 and the war is still claiming lives, not always in the most obvious way. The first Violet is left alone to mourn her loss, as her husband Fred gets deployed overseas again, this time to Burma. The second Violet escapes Pontypridd for Naples, signing up for the ATS.
As well as switching between each Violet’s story, Hyde weaves in a third voice: Pram Boy, the unborn child, tells his story in lilting verse that, combined with liberally spaced chunks of text, gives this compact novel the feel of a prose poem. The effect is oddly soothing.
Violets is a book of contrasts: the barren and the fecund; the drabness of England and the colourfulness of coastal Italy, where Welsh Violet lingers past VE Day to give birth; the mother who will adopt a baby and the mother who will gives hers away. Hyde dedicates the novel to her father, in memory of her grandmother, thanking ‘Eileen and Eileen’ in the acknowledgements ‘for bold lives lived’. Violets is a touching tribute, deftly written, to all women left struggling in similar situations.