At Break of Day by Elizabeth Speller

at-break-of-dayReview by Sophie-Louise Hyde

Elizabeth Speller’s contemporary war fiction has fast-grown to be some of the most talked about new literature in Britain. Her first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, published in 2010 and following the return of Laurence Bartram to a world in the aftermath of the Great War, was chosen as the Richard and Judy Summer Pick and shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Awards.[1] Now, in her latest tale, published in 2013 by Virago, ‘lives cross, dreams are shattered, and futures altered as the hours pass during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.’[2]

At Break of Day, simultaneously published in the USA under the title The First of July, tells the story of the ‘tragedies of war’.[3] When we first meet them, the story’s four central protagonists are living separate lives in different parts of the world: Jean-Baptiste is in Picardy immersed in visions of travelling down sea, whilst Frank has moved to London and dreams of only two loves in life: finding a wife and finding a bicycle. Benedict, on the other hand, is consumed by his troubled relationships with both God and best friend Theo, whilst Harry has flown the nest for a new life in New York.[4] Little do they know that ‘a horror that would have been unimaginable in pre-war Europe and England’ is about to change their lives forever.[5]

Speller’s emotionally-charged tale is in keeping with much of her previous writing and many works of Great War fiction by her contemporaries. It’s moving and fast-paced narrative is full of depth as the overlap between her four male characters and their individual stories comes to light, giving more than just the usual historical or factual account of soldiers at war. There is a sense of fragmentation in the way that Speller’s readers are dipped in and out of each persona’s story, through her manipulation of the text’s structural elements, and this brings to life the broken feeling of war as it manifests itself prominently betwixt the novel’s pages. This somewhat disjointed sensation of conflict shares thematic and gendered concerns with much contemporary women’s war fiction available today. For example, explorations of sexuality in Benedict’s close friendship with Theo – ‘Benedict inhaled deeply. Sat back […] wanting, more than anything, to take Theo in his arms.’ (p.116) – and the gendered considerations of man’s behaviour at war through the portrayal of Harry – ‘For the last few days he and Marina had been travelling ahead of war, or just running away , really, Harry thought […]’ (p.119) – are reminiscent of the concerns demonstrated in Pat Barker’s earlier war trilogy, Regeneration through male characters Siegfried Sassoon and Billy Prior.[6]

Speller’s structural decisions in At Break of Day, can make it possible, at times, for her reader to become lost in the question of which character’s story they are currently submerged in. This is because it is a complex journey for any reader to embark on. Having said that, Speller’s novel is well-written and cleverly-connected, avoiding the overtly obvious idea of cliché, and this is testament, not only to Speller’s courageous male protagonists, but to her own gutsy writing techniques.

 After something similar? Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room (2012) mixes war, art and death through a central female character in a tale that echoes Virginia Woolf’s own Jacob’s Room.[7]


[1] For more details on Elizabeth Speller’s first War novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, please see ‘About’, Elizabeth Speller: Author (2013) <; [accessed 30 April 2014].

[2] Quote taken from ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’, Elizabeth Speller – Books (2013) <; [accessed 30 April 2014].

[3] See ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’ [accessed 30 April 2014].

[4] See front inside cover of Elizabeth Speller’s At Break of Day (London: Virago, 2013).

[5] Quote taken from ‘The First of July (published in the UK as At Break of Day)’ [accessed 30 April 2014].

[6] The texts that make up Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy include: Regeneration (London: Penguin, 1992), The Eye in the Door (London: Penguin, 1994) and The Ghost Road (London: Penguin, 1996).

[7] See Hermione Lee’s ‘Toby’s Room by Pat Barker – review’, The Guardian: Books (2012) <; [accessed 2 May 2014}.

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