As a word of warning, there will be spoilers throughout. This is a short book, one which I would find it difficult to discuss at all without ruining the plot.
Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier is so impossibly devastating that I don’t know what to do with my feelings about it. I was not very impressed with the style of writing, I have to admit, and I had to read some sentences several times to get the gist. But the characters, the plot! Chris has suffered shell-shock in the war and now cannot remember the past fifteen years. All he can remember is that he is in love with Margaret, who is now married and drab and sadly kind. She is the sort of woman who wipes her shoes a bit too zealously on the doormat before entering a home.
Chris is married, too, but to an awful woman, Kitty, who does not even attempt to understand him. Kitty is selfish and ornamental and cares mostly about the appearance of things. The book is narrated by Chris’s cousin Jenny, who lives in the house with him and Kitty. When Margaret arrives at the house, they think that she is out to con them, to take money from them, but the truth is that Chris cannot recall his wife. He simply remembers Margaret and the perfect summer he spent at her father’s inn. When he suffers shell-shock while away fighting in the war, therefore, word of it gets to Margaret instead of to Kitty.
Margaret may have lost her youthful vitality, but she has depth. She waited for years for a letter from Chris. She believed that he did not care and did not write. But she finds out that the people who took over her father’s inn did not bother to forward her mail. She finds out, too late, that there are twelve letters waiting for her, that he did still love her, that, although she waited for five years to despairingly submerge herself in marriage to another man, he had written. They loved each other, but were kept apart by lost letters.
And now Chris does not remember that he had forced himself to move on and to change himself, to become more subdued, less like the jovial boy he was, and to marry Kitty. His cousin Jenny also loves Chris. Jenny is jealous of Margaret’s love and fears that, once Chris sees her, transformed by years, no longer the beautiful girl he remembers, he will not love her anymore.
But that is not true. He is just as much enchanted with her as he had been despite the outward changes. Chris, his memory lost, simply cannot believe that he ever gave Margaret up and married a different woman. On the advice of the doctor, he and Margaret spend time together, during which she tries to bring back his memory. When she finally finds the point that will restore his memory, she tells him. This brings Chris back to his unhappy life and unhappy memories and sends Margaret back to her respectable but dull life with her husband.
Something about it made me so sad for the characters, and because it is set during the 1910s, there is no hope for any other ending than for Margaret to go back to her husband and for Chris to accept Kitty as his wife. Even before I read the ending, I felt where it was going. Part of the problem with modern novels is that there is no earthly reason why Chris and Margaret could not be together nowadays. Divorce is common and would not have ostracized either of them from good society. There is no honor, in modern literature, in staying unhappy, in following a code of morality passed down for generations. For Chris and Margaret, however, there can be no happy ending. This book made me sad, but I think it is worth reading.