A short novel, almost a novella, The Return of the Soldier was Rebecca West’s first novel and it’s packs a wallop as well. As reviewers mention, every word, every scene is balanced perfectly, with hardly a word out of place.
Set in the post-WWI world of England, the novel features four main characters, all intertwined in various ways into a tapestry of Captain Chris Baldry: his wife, Kitty, his cousin and childhood friend, Jenny, and a woman from the nearby village, Mrs. William Gray. Chris has returned home from the trenches of the war with amnesia, but only reaches home because Mrs. Gray has been receiving letters from him during his time in hospital. Chris and Mrs. Gray had had a passionate romance fifteen years ago, but it had long ended over some jealousy on his part. Each had moved on to marry other people and have very different lives, in different classes, in different ways.
The amnesia that Chris sustains works to bring Mrs. Gray together with the two Ladies of the Manor (both related to Chris), each of whom are remarkably snobby in horrible ways. The narrator, cousin Jenny, has a twisted love for Chris, much more than a cousin would have nowadays (but perhaps it was ok back then – it seems a bit creepy to me.) This unrequited love leads Jenny to think really awful thoughts about Jenny, seeing her as a threat to her and Kitty’s relationship with Chris. The novel is packed with her judgmental thoughts towards Mrs. Gray, and as West writes, “her little pink mouth went on manufacturing malice…” Really, I found the woman insufferable at times.
However, as the story progresses, and the three women work together (more so Jenny and Mrs. Gray than Kitty who is a lot more reserved), they devise a plan to help Chris retrieve his memory, even though by doing so, it will mean awfulness for almost everyone involved: for Chris, for Mrs. Gray, for Kitty, for Jenny.
However, truth is what matters and so the truth is told. I can’t really say any more as it will give the conclusion to the plot away, but suffice to say, it’s a powerful novel about love, truth, war, and choosing the right thing to do (or do they?)
Despite the truly horrible Jenny’s constant harping on about the lower class Mrs. Gray, I enjoyed this novel and am happy to have read it. I will be going to read more of West’s work, particularly the trilogy she wrote later in life and called the Aubrey trilogy.
This was an ebook from Girlebooks.