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on 14 July 2017
Chris Baldry’s return from the war is awaited by his wife, Kitty and his cousin, Jenny, who is the narrator of the story. Kitty’s and Jenny’s lives both seem to revolve around Chris. Their role is to supply his (perceived) needs. Indeed there is a sense that their desire for his return is partly so that everything can return to the way it was before he went away. Kitty is in a kind of stasis following the death of their son five years earlier and Jenny seems unsure of her role in the absence of her childhood friend and cousin.

From the reader’s perspective it seems a vain hope that anyone could be unchanged by the experience of war and indeed, when Chris does return, it’s not in the manner Kitty and Jenny hoped and it’s clear everything will not go back to how it was before. Their dreams of Chris’s return are shattered by the arrival of Margaret Grey who was involved with Chris many years before. She brings news that he has been wounded, not physically but psychologically. A severe case of amnesia means he has forgotten everything about the past fifteen years. When he returns home, he has no memory of his wife or his son. Heartbreakingly for Kitty, it is Margaret to whom Chris now gives his affections, picking up their relationship as if the events of the intervening years (and her marriage to someone else) had never taken place.

At this point, I’m going to be honest and say that, although the writing is fantastic, this book was hard going because I found most of the characters very unlikeable. There was a tone of class snobbery from, in particular, the narrator and Kitty towards Margaret that I found quite unpleasant. For example, this description of Mrs Grey’s arrival with the news:

‘She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.’

The snobbery isn’t confined to Mrs Grey’s appearance either but to her intellect as well.

‘She answered with an odd glibness and humility, as though tendering us a term she had long brooded over without arriving at comprehension, and hoping that our superior intelligences would make something of it.’

And I wasn’t convinced that the author was seeking to satirise their snobbery.

Although understandably affected by the death of her child, I still found Kitty a distinctly unsympathetic character. Her air of self-pity was unattractive and it seemed part of her outrage at the situation was that Chris’s affections were now directed towards a woman of lower social status.

Margaret comes across as the most likeable character. Despite a difficult marriage, she is a loyal and devoted wife and she is the person who wants the best for Chris even if that means she will lose him again. Towards the end of the novel, I grew to like Jenny a little more because it does seem she is able to place Chris’s interests at the forefront and she comes to realise that Chris needs more than mere physical comforts.

‘It had been our pretence that by wearing costly clothes and organizing a costly life we had been servants of his desire. But [Margaret] revealed the truth that, although he did indeed desire a magnificent house, it was a house not built with hands.’

The Return of the Soldier represents an early exploration of the psychological effects of war (what we would understand as shell-shock, although this term is not used). Chris’s disorientation when he returns home – he goes towards the wrong bedroom, trips over steps that he doesn’t remember being there – and the effect this has on the rest of the household is vividly evoked: ‘Strangeness has come into the house, and everything was appalled by it, even time.’

Chris’s loss of memory exposes the emptiness of Kitty’s and Jenny’s existence without him.

‘But by the blankness of those eyes which saw me only as a disregarded playmate and Kitty not at all save as a stranger who had somehow become a decorative presence in his home and the orderer of his meals he let us know completely where we were.’

More than anything the book explores the moral dilemma of what is the right thing to do if all options have undesirable consequences.
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on 28 January 2018
As other reviewers have mentioned, the narrator is a snob. Even when she's saying something kind or observing a positive element to Margaret' s character she mentions how poor and ugly she is. Published in 1918, this is clearly a novel of its time. Reading it a century later it's maddening how harsh the language about the lower classes is compared to the war. The sense of entitlement when the women in this big posh house do nothing but are married or born into wealth is frustrating. Three women want one man. Kitty would rather him be sent to war as cannon fodder but "normal" mentally than be safe and content with another woman. Weirdly this isn't referred to as a duty, it's more just that she wants him back to his 35 year old self and if death at the front be part of it then so be it. Of course they didn't know the war would end in 1918 but if they'd just given him a year living as his 20 year-old self it would have been a different story. It's strange how Jenny is so insular and isolated that there's no mention of all the other men fighting in the Great War. Of all the physical and mental consequences of trench warfare I think Chris got off quite lightly so my sympathies and empathy aren't quite what they could be. I should have felt for Kitty. My husband and I are 35 and if he forgot the past 15 years of our lives it would be devastating but Kitty was an utterly unsympathetic character. Sorry, this isn't a great review, more a stream of consciousness on my response to the characters. The style is readable if overly preoccupied with the flora and fauna. I've just watched the trailer for the incredibly dated 1982 film adaptation. I think it could still work as a film or telly adaptation and could be done even better with a cast who don't all look the same and less Vaseline on the camera lens.
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on 12 May 2014
The main World War I novel by a woman, "The Return of the Soldier" is based on the home front of Harrow and Wealdstone in 1916 and shows the relationship between shell-shocked Chris and three women in his life. His broken memory wipes out the last 15 years, including his marriage, and sends him back to the love of his life, Margaret.
The book was written before the end of the war and transmits the uncertainty, frustration and desperation of those days. In settling how they will relate to each other, the four characters answer questions that loom even bigger than war, such as 'what is a man?', 'what is love?' and, bringing the two together, 'what is honour?'. Only 24 when she wrote the book, Rebecca West was still working out her style as she created this big canvas. The whole story is given yet another slant by the fact that the narrator, Chris's cousin, is a shocking snob - the kind of woman who lost out to social evolution after World War I, but not before she despised the working class Margaret for the clothes she wore and the roughness of her skin.
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on 23 March 2014
This is a very interesting and well written story about war and social class. One is pulled in initially to the tragic issue of a soldier having suffered shell shock and amnesia from his wounds in the 1st word war. As the story unfolds through the experience of his cousin who lives with him and his wife, another significant character emerges in the person of his first love. This working class woman has been informed that the soldier has been injured and that he wants to see her. It then emerges that he has lost his memory of15 years of his life, has forgotten his wife and longs to be reunited with his lover of his young adulthood.
What is striking in this emotionally turbulent tale is the strength of class attitude from the soldier's women towards his former lover. She is despised for being simply of her class and the soldier's devotion to her is almost disgusting to them.
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on 25 June 2013
How can I never before have read Rebecca West? Astonishing. I was aware of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon but not of her fiction. This shameful gap has now been addressed by this wonderful novella, an incredibly touching portrait of deep love and of loneliness. And her writing sparkles, some random examples -
`I know there are things at least as great for those women whose independent spirits can ride fearlessly and with interest outside the home park of their personal relationships, but independence is not the occupation of most of us. What we desire is greatness such as this, which had given sleep to the beloved'
`There was the necessity of seeking the healthful breezes of Brighton or Bognor or Southend, which were the places in which Mr Grey's chest oddly elected to thrive'
`Her irony was as faintly acrid as a caraway seed'
`I found her stretched on her pillows, holding a review of her underclothing'
`She had forgotten that we lived in the impregnable fort of a gracious life'
I am indeed fortunate finally to have discovered her - I'm already reading the Aubrey trilogy!
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on 21 August 2016
This story was an amazing insight into the life of the women who had to watch their loved ones suffer from shell shock during WWI and their different reactions to it. A quick read but incredibly enjoyable and well thought out. Questioning society's attitudes as well as highlighting problems with class and and unusual love story. The book itself was in great condition and worth the money.
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on 6 December 2012
I had never read this author before, and faced with its precise twentieth century prose I wasn't sure that this was for me. By the time I had got to the end I was absolutely converted. The story was simple, a soldier returning from the war - probably the first World War, who had been injured in battle and had lost the memory of his last 15 years. He returned home looking for the woman he had loved before, and did not even recognise his wife. Without giving too much away, he was eventually "saved" but at the same time lost. The saving involved heart-wrenching sacrifice. This was a well written, beautifully descriptive novella. It exposed the intensity of human emotion and showed a then hidden cost of war. If you can find this book - read it.
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on 18 December 2012
Written in 1918, this is a very tender and rather poetic account of the return of Chris, a shell-shocked soldier from World War One to the world of weath and luxury created by his beautiful wife and doting cousin. However, his heart is still on Money Island, with Margaret, his first love. Should he be returned to the real world or be allowed to remain happily living in the past? The story is beautifully written though very much a product of its time both in style and content. The portraits of the three women emerge powerfully. Feminists would find find plenty to chew upon here and some of the attitudes to class and wealth would make even those of the palest pink politics gnash their teeth.
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on 22 November 2016
This was such a great read. I had not read any Rebecca West until I read the Fountain Overflows. Another great read! She is a great author and I canrecommend the Return of the Soldier. Just be prepared that is is not a very long book. I never like good books to finish.
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on 31 January 2013
A strange tale that took me a while to get into but once engaged with the text I felt it rip at my heart with furious emotion. I hate the character of Kitty, adore the working class character of Margaret, and left the novel feeling very sorry for the narrator. For the most part the war is an unspoken void in the text, haunting every sentence and then at the end the full horror of WWI crashes down on you like a wave - you have been warned.
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