Although I have a lovely green Virago copy of this book, I chose to read the free version which I have on my kindle as I am away this week and I generally take my kindle away with me for ease.
This is really a novella, but despite it’s size it does pack quite an emotional punch. The writing is quite perfect, rather poetic at times. Apparently written when the author was very young and I believe it was her first published novel, it really was quite an achievement.
The Return of the Soldier takes place in England, mainly in a large home near Harrow, yet it concerns itself with war, the consequences and realities of that experience upon people and their relationships. The soldier of the title is Chris Baldry, away at the war, his devoted cousin Jenny and his wife Kitty are united in their wish to have him home with them where they feel he belongs. However Chris’s return to them is bittersweet, for he is suffering amnesia. His mind is stuck, fifteen years in the past, before he knew Kitty, but when he did know another woman. Of a lower social standing, Margaret is now a sad, worn middle aged woman, not the beautiful girl Chris knew so briefly, yet to him she is still that girl, and Kitty a stranger
As the novel progresses Jenny, who is the narrator of the story, is gradually separated from her original alliance with Kitty. She is devoted to her cousin, with what appears to be an unacknowledged love, Jenny seeks to protect him. Kitty’s pain is like a terrible grief which often manifests itself in her harshness towards Margaret, who is allowed to visit Chris in an effort to heal him.
That in such a slight novel, Rebecca West was able to so deftly explore themes of war, family, love, memory and class is surely testament to a truly gifted writer. The writing as I have said is lovely, The characters are seen at a slight distance, Kitty in particular is a cool remote figure, she’s hard, and thus it is difficult to feel for her, while at the same time the reader does feel her pain. I found this a very enjoyable little book, sad and quietly devastating it is the sort of book I suspect will stay in my mind for some time.