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
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Rebecca West - highly intelligent, highly gifted, vital, original, combative, formidable and kind - was a great woman VICTORIA GLENDINNING
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