Our narrator recounts the homecoming of her cousin Captain Chris Baldry, who has been sent home to recover from shell shock during WWI. Shortly before his homecoming, a woman by the name of Margaret had shown up at the door claiming to have received a letter from Chris, who is now suffering from amnesia and has no recollection of the past sixteen years having gone by. When Chris arrives home he doesn’t understand why the house, which has been redone over the years, looks different, nor why his cousin Jenny looks older, or why old and familiar servants, now passed away, have been replaced and above all, doesn’t recognize his gorgeous young wife Kitty. Instead, he demands to see his first love, whom he thinks is still a young girl and this turns out to be Margaret, now married woman and subsisting on a low-income. Kitty, on the other hand, revels in the luxury provided by her husband’s hard work. She has perfect good taste and as such is always a vision of great beauty, and being overly concerned with appearances, believes that her husband is playing a clever trick on everyone, as she cannot believe he could ever have forgotten her or be insensitive to her great beauty. However, she still agrees to have Margaret brought over to him in hopes this might jolt his memory. But when she comes to understand that Chris truly doesn’t know who she is, Kitty becomes furious that Chris treats her like a stranger and instead prefers to spend his time with Margaret, a lower-class, physically unappealing woman who wears shoddy clothes and who nevertheless makes him very happy. A specialist is brought in who proposes a radical approach that is sure to cure the Captain, so that he can return to his obligations and back to lead his men in the war. There is a strong divergence of opinions as to whether that is the best option for his wellbeing, with Jenny believing that perhaps leaving him to his fantasy might be beneficial for his inner-being, but Kitty is adamant that she wants her husband back to his practical and pragmatic self, by her side, and able to continue his role as a provider, even if this means sending him off back into combat in the interim, which was the only socially acceptable option at the time.
I absolutely loved this beautifully written and moving story which was of special interest to me since I started the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker recently, also set during WWI, and with a psychiatrist who specializes in treating shell shock as one of the principal characters. One of the central issues there is the question of what constituted mental health when men were only considered ‘normal’ if they were willing to put their lives on the line to fight in a brutal war with so many casualties that it was akin to a suicide mission. Of course, it was easy to draw parallels with perhaps less dramatic personal wars—mine, and that of countless others—in which we have all been forced at one point or another to make choices that don’t correspond to our inner nature simply to be considered productive, stable members of a society and accepted as such.
I got this short novel as a free audiobook from LibriVox.org. If you’re interested, just <a href=”http://librivox.org/the-return-of-the-soldier-by-rebecca-west/”target=”_blank”>click on this link</a> if you’d like to download it. Running time is less than 3 hours. You can also listen without downloading by just clicking on the sound file links.