Wednesday, January 03, 2018

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

I don't typically like English Manor novels but The Return of the Soldier is an exception to that rule.  Instead of bustling mansions filled with people fretting endlessly about the next ball or gala, it's about just what the title promises:  a soldier returning from war.  Chris is the head of the household and the titular soldier.  He has been injured in The Great War and is due home soon.  His wife, Kitty; his cousin, Jenny; and some servants are the only occupants of the house as Chris and Kitty lost their only child at a very young age.  The novel begins with Kitty and Jenny in the child's untouched nursery discussing having not received a letter from Chris in a couple weeks.  They are informed of his injury and of his return by a visitor - a woman neither of them knows.  It turns out Chris is suffering from shell shock and it has affected his memory.  He has no recollection of the last 10 years and believes himself to still be a young, carefree bachelor.  Why does this stranger know all of this?  Because Chris wrote to her.  They were courting a decade earlier and Chris wrote a love letter to her, completely unaware of his marriage or current life.

The plot reads a bit like a soap opera, what with amnesia and lost loves and melodrama.  The book itself is much deeper than your average daytime television however.  How the various characters deal with this tragedy is handled carefully and about as realistically as I can imagine.  The flashbacks to Chris' time with the stranger are lovely yet heartbreaking given the current reality.  Characters dealing with a real issue is not the only thing that separates this from Manor novels and soap operas, there is also a lot of subtext.  The English class system is shown for the haughty excuse for prejudice that it was.  The way Jenny and Kitty look down on the middle class woman from Chris' past is staggering.  Jenny is hearing about how her beloved cousin is injured and she's focused on the woman's shabby coat.  Rebecca West wrote one of those rare war novels that does not take place at all on the battlefield but instead focuses entirely on the devastating effects on the home front.

If you like this book, you might want to try Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West's classic travelogue/history through the then Yugoslavia.

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