The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

A friend of mind told me that Rebecca West’s novella The Return of the Soldier was very good, and as I’d already enjoyed West’s novel The Fountain Overflows very much, I thought I would give it a try. I found it to be a slow read in the best possible way: it asks you to read carefully to savor all of its details and emotional complexity. The story is set during World War I, and was in fact written during World War I, and is about two women in England who hear that Chris, one woman’s husband and the other woman’s cousin, has become ill. The news is very bad: he is mentally ill, suffering from shell shock. And the news is brought by a woman, Margaret, whom Chris loved 15 years earlier, and with whom he believes himself to still be in love. He has completely forgotten the last 15 years during which he got married, had and then lost a child. Now he is returning home to face the wife he doesn’t remember.

Described like this, the story sounds sensational, but it doesn’t feel that way. Jenny, Chris’s cousin, narrates the story in the first person, and filtered through her point of view, we see a great deal of complexity in the main characters, not least in Jenny herself. We see how Chris has changed in the shift from his young, 21-year-old love for Margaret to his more recent relationship with his wife, a colder, more practical, more sophisticated woman than Margaret. Now that he has returned from the war and is in love with Margaret again, he seems younger than ever. Far from being a detached, observing narrator, Jenny might be called unreliable, or at least extremely biased, as she has a hard time understanding Margaret and has strong feelings toward Chris. Even though she is describing a love triangle of which she seems not to be a part, she is nonetheless closely involved.

The mechanism that brings about the book’s end is perhaps too pat, but that doesn’t spoil the book, which remains satisfyingly complex all the way through. Now that I have enjoyed two West books, I am going to need to read more. I’m particularly interested in, but also scared of, reading what I understand is her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travel and history book about Yugoslavia. I would under almost all circumstances not be drawn to that kind of book, especially since it’s very, very long. But I’ve heard from very reliable people that it’s great, and I want to get to it one day.

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7 responses to “The Return of the Soldier, by Rebecca West

  1. I’m ashamed to say that West is a writer I’ve never read, even though people whose opinion I very much respect continually tell me how good she is. I think I am going to have to choose her for a book group read as this seems to be the one way I can ensure that I get round to authors. Which of the two you’ve read would you recommend?

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    • I think you would be okay with either one, to be honest. The Return of the Soldier is much shorter and more focused on the adult world, while The Fountain Overflows is longer and about young people. It’s more an issue of which type of book appeals more. But if forced to choose, I’d go with The Fountain Overflows. I hope you like her when you get there!

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  2. I have loved all the Rebecca West books I’ve read, and I’ve been sort of saving this one up. I don’t know why I do that, but as soon as I love an author, I start rationing their books! Very glad to know you enjoyed it – that’s another reason why I’m likely to as well.

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  3. I’ve not read West yet, she’s on “the list” and that list is so very long. I can see I really must make the effort to fit one of her books in to my reading.

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  4. I have some friends that named their band after her. I can totally understand why… Check them out, they are amazing-
    http://therebeccawest.com/

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