Chris Baldry returns from the front to the three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty, and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone. But Chris is shell-shocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn-keeper’s daughter. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate; his wife he remembers not at all. The women have a choice – to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret who reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice
Noticing that nibbled apple on the cover, I gravitated to not only to the Virago logo but more importantly to the author’s name. Having read some of West’s non-fiction pieces, mainly to do with religion and politics, her fiction promised to be a worthwhile read.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped, although there were some aspects of the work that interested me. Thankfully being one hundred and thirty-eight pages long (or short depending on your point of view), I was able to finish it before my patience was thoroughly worn out but it did take some effort to get to the end of this one, even with that in mind.
The story is focused on exploring the emotional impact of the three women, none of whom I really connected with. Margaret is by far the most likeable character, whilst Kitty and Jenny came across as unbelievably snobby and at times ridiculously hysterical. It was this overly dramatic nature that made me care little, despite appreciating the situation they were in.
The attitudes of the time – and class – are understandable, and the superficial does often mask deeper concerns and vulnerabilities but added to that was the way the story was written, it just left me cold. It all feels very dated and lacked any sort of impact.
There were some parts of the book I valued, although perhaps there was not enough of them. I liked the examination of the women at home waiting for news of the men, and how they chose to cope with not knowing. The solace taken in the natural world and in memories, which are both delicate and insubstantial at times, was a clever juxtaposition with Chris and being at the Front.
The question of whether it is better for Chris to be cured and remember both the good and the bad times, or to be left blissfully unaware of the war and all its terrors, is well done. I would have liked to have read more about Chris’ thoughts, and his take on the missing fifteen years.
The Return of the Soldier is a story about sacrifices in war and in life. The book is, on reflection, an important one but it that didn’t focus on the bits I found most interesting and so, for me, feels like a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of rounding out the story and adding some flesh to Chris’ character, as well as the overall themes and emotional impact.