Willis Hancocks survives fighting in Western Europe during World War II but faces continuing battles of the mind at war’s end in Andrea McKenzie Raine’s poignant study of the plight of the former soldier in her historical novel, A Crowded Heart.
Willis decides to remain in London rather than return to his native Canada where his parents and sister live near Vancouver. Eager to put the war behind him, he marries Ellie, an intelligent young woman who has studied art at Cambridge University. Her affluent parents approve of Willis, and her father offers to finance his new son-in-law’s study of law at Cambridge. The newlyweds’ future could not look rosier.
This is, however, the story of a man who is haunted by the terrors of the battlefield. Life cannot proceed smoothly for someone who wakes from sleep in terror, who is plagued by survivor guilt, anxiety, and depression. Willis struggles to find his footing but repeatedly fails as he fights personal battles with alcohol, infidelity, and deception.
Admittedly, these are poor weapons of choice to face the daily struggle of postwar life, and although he has periods of relative calm and sobriety, his sins and regrets continue to multiply. He recognizes his inadequacies as a husband and a father of two sons, one born out of wedlock to a mistress. Although Willis manages to earn his degree in law and launch a practice with his war buddy, Sam, he is never victorious at achieving inner peace.
Raine wisely expands the narrative of the novel to reveal the wide net of war. Willis is not the only victim; the people in his life experience the after-shocks of fighting as well. Ellie is a dutiful wife but she is alone in her marriage, painting in secret because she can’t share her work with her emotionally remote, often absent husband. Willis spends years away from his family in Canada, neglecting them, and returns only when summoned after his mother’s death. He doesn’t engage with either of his sons and arranges to abandon the younger one altogether. It’s clear that the war will leave its mark on the next generation as well.
The ending of the novel is not surprising, but it is powerful and deeply affecting. One is left thinking of all the soldiers who escape death but are nonetheless robbed of their lives. Standing beside them are loving, distraught family members and friends, people who fervently hope for a cure – some miracle that will return traumatized veterans to their former selves. Not to give up on those who have already given up on themselves is the challenge. Raine reminds us that doing so requires a full heart, indeed, a crowded heart.