Saturday, December 01, 2018

Return of the Soldier

Return of the Soldier / Rebecca West
London: Virago, 1994, c1918.
188 p.

A brief and beautiful novel about love, sacrifice, and the importance of truth.

Chris has returned home from WWI, invalided out. He's been involved in an incident on the battlefield, and has lost his memory of the previous fifteen years. In his mind, he is still in love with Margaret, his lower class first love who is now married, as is he. 

He doesn't recall his own beautiful, brittle wife Kitty, and thinks of his cousin Jenny (narrator of this tale) as his childhood playmate. But Jenny and Kitty are determined to have him back, despite the fact that his memory loss leaves him both happy and not on the front. But even with these considerations, can they really let the truth slide? 

There is a lot of misery for him to remember: a troubled marriage, a lost child, the war itself. But what move is the morally correct one? These three women, who all love Chris (though his wife's love seems the slightest), wrangle with this issue over the course of this brief novel. 

It's beautifully written, with pointed and complex descriptions of both characters and landscape which stick in the mind and create a full world for the story. Even though it's brief there is a lot to it. It's West's first novel and so leans a little close to melodrama in a couple of places, but not near enough to spoil anything. 

What a thoughtful book about WWI, the home front and how those left in England felt about it, and also about fidelity, honesty, and to be perfectly frank, class differences. The value that Kitty places on her wealthy, expansive life and her place in society is very clear by the way she treats people like Margaret -- there is more than just a romantic jealousy going on. She describes Margaret thus: 
She isn't beautiful any longer. She's drearily married. She's seamed and scored and ravaged by squalid circumstances. You can't love her when you see her.
And when Margaret first arrives to let Jenny and Kitty know about Chris' affliction, that he's wired her and not them that he's coming home, their reaction is: 
 I pushed the purse away from me with my toe, and hated her as the rich hate the poor as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home and introduce ugliness to the light of day.
When I first read this I was struck by how much this applies to our own world, one hundred years later. Sigh. 

A striking and memorable book; recommended. 

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