Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier

February 15, 2022

     An early start with the book group choice for next month, and what an astonishing book this first novel by Rebecca West, published in 1918, was. As First World War literature was one of the topics I specialised in teaching towards the end of my career, I was surprised never to have encountered this short novel, but since the Great War is only incidental to its plot, perhaps this is not surprising.

An officer suffers from shellshock, and all memories of fifteen years of his life have vanished; he has no recollection of his wife, the death of their small son, any of the changes which have taken place at his home. His memories are stuck on the idyllic happiness of his first love years back, and the first message from the field hospital contacts her… you can imagine the complexities West has set up here.

You are quite shockingly thrown in at the deep end, and West’s style is brief, sparse, and yet very tightly focused in terms of close observation of characters’ movements, gestures; it felt cinematographic in many ways. I was struck by how she developed a complex, moving and ultimately tragic plot in fewer than a hundred pages, and mentally imagined how a contemporary writer might have wittered through several hundred more without any improvement… Equally, I realised the immediacy West achieved, a quality I’ve encountered in other writings from the war itself and its immediate aftermath, where the horrors are well-known and widely known, as opposed to today’s writers who have to weave in so much contextual information and background a century and more later.

The flaw for me, and obviously it’s a reflection of the time when West wrote, was the simplistic use of Freudian psychology as a trigger for the denouement; it’s a minor flaw as it’s merely a trigger and the ending itself is brief enough and tragic enough to overshadow it.

Although the story is ostensibly about the return of the soldier – and the multiple meanings of the title have only just leapt out to me – actually the main interest is the complex and evolving relationship between the three women, the soldier’s wife, his first love, and the cousin who is the narrator but also deeply involved with the events as they unfold.

From the time itself, all those years ago, the story seems to express a longing, a nostalgia for the time before, the world before, the innocence before the horrors, at the same time as perhaps unconsciously recognising that those times are gone forever, that you cannot rewind. It’s a very powerful, well-written and extremely moving novel.

2 Responses to “Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier”

  1. penwithlit Says:

    Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    I recently read a review in The Paris Review with Rebecca West that made me want to read more and more of her work. Thanks for posting.

    Like

  2. bob cannell Says:

    West was leftie liberal and some believe this novel is about the class system. The posh womens utter contempt for the lower middle class woman. The easy beautiful life of the young man pre war contrasted with the working class who are not named, just servants. The ease with which the rich can summon mediacl help compared to the life of illness suffered by lower classes.
    The setting is a dream. The description of countryside and Monkey island is early 19th century not 20th. Harrowweald was not remotely rural after the war. Its a remembered romantic dream. Monkey island is long way from Harrow.
    Its beautifully written, dreamy, would it be magical realism?

    Like


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