Friday, November 11, 2011

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Ordinarily I only review books that I like, but this author is so unusual that I can’t resist making a few comments.  Rebecca West is new to me and quite a change from the two other books I’ve been reading (Trollope and Tolkien). The Return of the Soldier (published  1918) begins with a husband gone to war, a deceased child, and a mysterious telegram; and the drama doesn’t let up till the very end.  Fortunately, it’s a short book and can sustain that kind of suspense.

Chris Baldry is a captain in the British army during World War One.  His wife Kitty and cousin Jenny are awaiting his return when they receive news that he’s been wounded and has no memory of the last 15 years of his life.  The book recounts his family’s efforts to bring him back to reality.

I disliked the conclusion of Return of the Soldier so much that I decided to give West another chance by reading her second novel, The Judge.  But it was so awful I could not finish it.  There are moments of brilliance in West’s writing yet often she flounders through her prose. (Where were her editors?) Frankly, I was surprised to read of her fame as an author because these two novels were both so uneven in quality.  In addition to the writing issues, I struggled to like her books for their underlying themes of feminism, socialism and the inefficacy of God.

So why am I even bothering to write this post?  Because some of her writing is very, very good.

From Return of the Soldier:

At his father’s death he had been obliged to take over a business that was weighted by the needs of a mob of female relatives who were all useless either in the old way, with antimacassars, or in the new way, with golf clubs.

Cumulus clouds floated very high, like lumps of white light.

Why did her tears reveal to me what I had learned long ago, but had forgotten in my frenzied love, that there is a draft that we must drink or not be fully human?  I knew that one must know the truth.  I knew quite well that when one is an adult one must raise to one’s lips the wine of truth, heedless that it is not sweet like milk, but draws the mouth with its strength, and celebrate communion with reality, or else walk forever queer and small like a dwarf. 

He felt furtive and red-eared while he searched in the purse of his experience to find the coin that would admit him into her world (from The Judge)

In spite of my ambivalence toward the talented Miss West, I’m glad I gave her a try.  


Anna said...

I hated the ending, too. I thought her writing was good but sometimes too descriptive for my tastes. I'd wanted to give up on this one a few times, but I kept going because I was reading it for a read-along. My review is here in case you're interested. Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

Vintage Reading said...

Sorry that you didn't get on with TROTS. You may like The Fountain Overflows which she wrote later in life and is widely considered to be her best work.