Set in 1920, The Blue Bench is a moving account of the damage, both physical and emotional in its nature, done to the soldiers who survived the First World War. Edward Thompson, a gifted musician, and his friend and former comrade, William, are in Margate for the summer. William, who acts as Edward’s agent, has secured Edward a spot playing at the Winter Gardens for the season. William is essential to Edward, who has returned from the war badly disfigured and in regular need of morphine. Edward wears a carefully constructed mask and is a former patient of the surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, who pioneered new techniques to help with terrible injuries, and the craftsman Francis Derwent Wood. William and Edward are not the only soldiers in Margate that summer; Marriner’s novel features many characters who have returned from war damaged in some way, and the immediate aftermath of the war is very felt throughout.
Running throughout the narrative is the work being done by Reverend Railton and others to secure a lasting place for the country’s bereaved to find solace in the form of the grave of the Unknown Warrior. The national mood is caught brilliantly in the scenes in London on November 11th, and the sense of grief for those lost is tangible throughout The Blue Bench; Marriner’s novel reminds us that family and friends continued to lose people to the war, one way or another, after 1918.
The novel also focuses on the women in Edward’s and William’s lives. Once in Margate, they meet and befriend Evelyn and Catherine. These are young women facing a new future in a world which has been turned upside down, and Marriner builds up a strong sense of the value of loyalty and love. This is a hefty read at over 600 ages, and this gives him the time and space to unfold his story of 1920 slowly. This allows for a complexity in his characterisation and I was very happy to lose myself in Margate, and in Edward’s life. It’s an emotional story, and one which leaves you thinking about the men who returned, one way or another, long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.