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The Return of the Soldier Paperback – September 17, 2009
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It would be a crime to give away even the barest outline of Rebecca West's apparently simple, always agonizing first novel. We shall say only that The Return of the Soldier concerns the title character and three very different women to whom he is linked in very different ways--by blood, by marriage, and by love. It is also an imaginative study (one drenched in realism) of intimacy and illusion, possession and a terrible, destructive snobbery. On one estate outside London, even as the Great War and familial loss are taking their toll, the inhabitants strive for a measured, outwardly exquisite existence. All must remain as it was while their Chris is at war: each person, each object in its proper place. "You probably know the beauty of that view," the narrator buttonholes us, looking out the nursery window:
For when Chris rebuilt Baldry Court after his marriage, he handed it over to architects who had not so much the wild eye of the artist as the knowing wink of the manicurist, and between them they massaged the dear old place into matter for innumerable photos in the illustrated papers.But of late this universe unto itself cannot quite keep out an England altered by ambition and industry. Only a few miles away a "red suburban stain," Wealdstone, has somehow cropped up. And one day all is permanently altered--or, rather, revealed--when a Wealdstone resident comes bearing news of Captain Baldry. Mrs. William Gray is clearly not of Chris's wife Kitty and his cousin Jenny's class, as Kitty in particular makes her aware. "Again her gray eyes brimmed," Jenny observes. "People are rude to one, she visibly said, but surely not nice people like this." How is it, then, that this dreary, "dingy" woman knows Chris and knows that something has happened to him? And how is it that Jenny soon comes to see her as someone "whose personality was sounding through her squalor like a beautiful voice singing in a darkened room"?
In the remainder of this brief, perfect novel, a vanished (or repressed) past and its lost prospect of happiness comes to the fore. Rebecca West is best remembered for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941), but she displays the same vision--and a similar degree of realism--in her charged 1916 novel. Many readers will passionately regret the book's last twist, even as they know it to be artistically as well as historically true. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“Brilliant . . . [West was] an artist who wrote wonderful prose, who took chances with language and cadence, and who wrote poetically, even of prosaic subjects.”
—The New Republic
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
The narrator is a female cousin who has very high regard for the soldier. The style is Early Post Victorian, and there is no crass language whatsoever. A modern American reader may find the style somewhat dated. Personally I very much like Victorian and Post Victorian literature and really enjoyed this novel.
I purchased both and audiobook and read along on Kindle. The audiobook was more descriptive than the Kindle. They were very similar but not identical and I much preferred the audiobook.
The narrator of my audiobook was Nadia May. Nadia May happens to be one of my favorite narrators and is my favorite narrator for George Eliot Novels. The reason I mention this is that this novel really reminds me of George Eliot, who is my favorite author. I cannot help but wonder if my perception is affected by Nadia May being the narrator.
The novel also reminds me of the early novels of Virginia Wolff. Specifically I am thinking of "The Voyage Out", "Night And Day", and "Jacob's Room". In that Rebecca West reminded me of both George Eliot and Virginia Wolff, I absolutely intend to study her further and read more of her works. Thank You...
The problem is not the story, which pulls the reader right along. Two women, the soldier's wife and his cousin, await his return from the war. Before the war he was a wealthy businessman; they are very comfortably established, and very much of the upper class. They learn from a distinctly non-upper class caller that the hero has been wounded, and has woken up in hospital with no memory of anything later than 1906 -- including his marriage. It turns out that in 1906 he and the non-upper class caller were deeply in love. He returns home, and events unfold.
Nor is the writing an issue. Indeed, it is sometimes very beautiful. Ms. West's description of nature -- of changing light and moving water, of vegetation and the way it grows -- are precise, but also emotionally evocative. They made me think of Whistler's paintings, which are not at all precise, because they so strongly evoke moods as well as images. And the structure of the novel is complex but not confusing, involving multiple timelines, one principal narrator but several shifts in narration, and a point of view that shifts over time.
I suppose that what bothered me about the novel is the characters; I did not at the end find them convincing enough to draw me in emotionally as well as aesthetically. To me, three of the four central characters seemed one dimensional -- the hero is innocent, the wife is shallow, the beloved woman is saintly. The fourth, the hero's cousin who is the main narrator, is more complex, but she too became unconvincing to me by the end of the book. There is a high romanticism about it all that, for me at least, says more about the time and place in which it was set than about the characters themselves.