It’s 1986. Fred Sadler has just died of old age. Seventy years after he marched off to WWI. As his ghost hovers near the ceiling of the nursing home where he’s died, Fred listens in dismay as the arrangement of his funeral falls to his loathed sister-in-law, Viola. Fred’s ghost follows his family, eavesdropping on his own funeral, and agonizing over his inability to set the record straight. Did old Uncle Fred really suffer from shell shock? Why did his family lock him away in the Whitby Hospital for the Insane? Couldn’t they have done more for him? Fred remembers his life as a child, his family’s hotel, the War, and the mental hospital. But his memories clash with Viola’s version as the family gathers one rainy October night to pay their respects.
Fred’s Funeral by Sandy Day is a moving novella based on letters written by her great uncle Fred who served in the World War One. This is not, however, a story about one man’s experiences in the trenches but rather the story of what happened to him afterwards partly as a result of this.
Told in third person narrative, it starts, as the title suggests, following Fred Sadler’s funeral. Unusually, we see events from the perspective of the deceased Fred as he sits in on his family’s discussion on him. Fred was the black sheep of the family before he went to war and the impact of what he saw and experienced while fighting compounds this further on his return. Fred’s Funeral is delicately told and Day gently draws you in to this moving story which, for me, is a tale about the far-reaching consequences of war, mental health and the lack of understanding that surrounds it.
As his behaviour on his return becomes erratic, his family place him in the care of a psychiatric hospital. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia rather than ‘shell shock’, Day writes about the lack of understanding around what would now clearly be post-traumatic stress disorder. At times Fred’s Funeral is a difficult read as Day’s descriptions of his experiences in the psychiatric hospital are upsetting but necessary to the book as it represents the period of time. I love how Day also portrays Fred’s views of his own mental health by having him as a ghost looking on. As he finally discovers what his family members really thought of him we are privy to his feelings and thoughts about what he was experiencing at the time. Again, this touched me as we never really know what other people think of us.
I found his family’s lack of understanding and also their lack of appreciation of Fred upsetting. Day has perfectly captured the attitudes of the time and how they change and evolve with each generation as awareness and understanding grow – and thank God that is the case! As we discover, however, the road to understanding and awareness is paved with horrors for those suffering.
Fred’s Funeral is a great piece of historical fiction based partly on fact and influenced by a real person which makes it all the more likeable. The fact that it documents and explores the impact of World War One on the individual immediately after its conclusion makes it an interesting and a timely read. While small in size, this beautifully crafted novella packs a big punch and I recommend it.
Published on 28 November 2017, you can get your copy of Fred’s Funeral HERE.