My rating: 4 stars
The storytelling in The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is concise. There aren’t noteworthy twists and turns. Although the characters are believable, both their personalities and states of mind could have been further explored. When we get to the end of this nevertheless enjoyable novella, Chris’s perspective is almost absent. This story is ultimately about the decisions made by the women in his life.
A long time had passed since Chris Baldry had written home from the war. The narrator, his cousin Jenny, couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t received any new letters, while his wife, Kitty, was more at ease with the lack of news. Neither of them could have guessed that they were about to receive a visit from a woman with information to share about him. Margaret Allington, whom Chris had loved in the past, received a telegram from him. He was in hospital and had no recollection of the last fifteen years. He thought that they were still young and together.
At first, Jenny and Kitty didn’t believe her, but they soon had confirmation of Chris’s memory loss. The next morning, they received a letter from Frank Baldry, another of Chris’s cousins, whom had recently visited him at the hospital. He advised them to get everything ready for Chris’s return home.
From the outset, Jenny seems to be an unreliable narrator, which increases the appeal of this novella. Her initial opinions on Margaret appear to be blinded by classism and even jealousy. Both she and Kitty were sneering when commenting on her. They saw her as inferior and, at first, believed that she just wanted something from them. Only closer to the end did Jenny reveal a pinch of respect for her.
“I pushed the purse away from me with my toe and hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.”
Kitty is portrayed as even more unpleasant. She resented Chris for not remembering marrying her. She seemed to be more concerned about how her husband losing his memory affected her than about his well-being. But only having Jenny’s point of view about her behaviour may lead to unfair assumptions.
Jenny is not an insipid narrator, but I wish we had been presented with alternative perspectives. The Return of the Soldier would have been an even more enjoyable read had the actions of the characters been as detailed as the visual descriptions of the natural settings.