Elizabeth Speller’s At Break of Day follows four young men from civilian life in 1913 to the killing fields of the Somme in 1916 and beyond.
Jean-Baptiste is a country boy from Picardy who dreams of leaving his small town home by rowing down river to the sea. Frank, a coffin maker, finds work in a big London department store and carefully plans his future which includes a wife and, more importantly, a bicycle. Benedict, an organ scholar, is captivated by Theo, his fellow student, but embarrassed and confused by his synaesthesia, seeing sounds as colours. Meanwhile Harry has left his privileged English life behind and become a successful businessman in New York. None are prepared for the horrors that are about to befall their generation.
Speller’s writing is emotional without tipping over into mawkishness and each of her characters is intriguing and well defined. The period spent waiting for daylight on the battlefield is tense as the men review their lives, struggling with fear and regrets. Each character reacts differently to the traumas of war and returning to civvie street is no less stressful. This is a stylishly written novel about the consequences of a brutal war for four young men.