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I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the essential and the irritating.  I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit recovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him.  But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.

(from The Return of the Soldier, pages 129-130 — the version I read was published in 1918 and very brittle, and I couldn’t find the book cover image online)

The Return of the Soldier, first published in 1918, was the first novel about World War I written by a woman.  Rebecca West tells the story of a young English soldier suffering from shell shock, with a focus on the three women he loves.  No one knows the horrors Chris Baldry witnessed in France because he doesn’t remember them.  In fact, he doesn’t remember anything from the last 15 years — not even his wife, Kitty.  Kitty finds out about her husband’s condition from a poor innkeeper’s daughter who knew Chris when they were young — a woman Chris believes he still loves.

When Chris returns to the family’s estate — a home that his wife and his cousin, Jenny, have turned into a sort of castle for him, a place where he should know nothing but happiness despite the death of his son five years earlier — he can’t deal with the changes.   Jenny, the book’s first-person narrator, recognizes his longing for the past and laments the loss of their close friendship, which may have been more than that on her part.  Chris insists that he must see Margaret, the woman from his past, who is now married, causing Kitty to become cold and withdrawn.  Jenny acknowledges Kitty’s shallowness, but even she is guilty of class discrimination, constantly describing Margaret’s shabby appearance as “offensive.”

The Return of the Soldier hardly mentions the war, other than Jenny’s nightmares about Chris in No-Man’s Land and her worries that he will be sent back to the front if he regains his memory.  It is such a short novel, and much of it is devoted to Jenny’s observations of the landscape, Chris and Margaret’s rekindled relationship, and efforts to help Chris remember the life he has with Kitty and Jenny.  West gives readers much to contemplate, and Margaret’s struggle between helping Chris remember his wife and wanting to hold on to him again was emotional.

Although I found the story itself interesting, I must admit that if it hadn’t been so short and I hadn’t been reading it for the Literature and War Readalong, I probably would have abandoned it after the first 20 pages.  West’s writing just didn’t grab me, and I moved from finding her words poetic and beautiful (“Birds sat on the telegraph wires that spanned the river as the black notes sit on a staff of music.” page 76) to dozing off while reading lengthy descriptions that I found somewhat boring.  I was intrigued by the fact that this was the first WWI novel written by a woman and that it aimed to cover so much, from shell shock and the women left at home to class differences, but I think I longed for more scenes with Chris, and I wanted to feel more connected to the female characters.  That’s the limitation of the first person point of view; we are only able to get to know the characters by what Jenny wishes to reveal.  Moreover, the ending just didn’t feel authentic to me, and readers are removed from the events that occur.  It ends rather abruptly, and my immediate thought was “Seriously?!?”

However, what I did like about The Return of the Soldier is it really makes you think about the characters and their motivations.  It’s complex in that West doesn’t just lay it out there; you have to read between the lines, work through Jenny’s observations, and ponder them to understand the responsibilities thrown upon Chris when his father died and the importance of the women in his life.  There’s very little said about Chris and Kitty’s son, so you have to really think about how his death has affected them.  West also tackles the idea of true love and how time can take a toll on people but someone in love wouldn’t notice.  So even though I wasn’t wowed by this novel, it might be worth giving a try.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Return of the Soldier from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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