This tiny little 90 page novella packs quite an emotional punch. It is narrated by Jenny, the cousin of Chris, who is the titular returning soldier. He has been shell shocked on the Western Front, losing all memory of the last 15 years of his life. He has no memory of his wife, Kitty, instead believing himself still madly in love with his sweetheart, Margaret, who he hasn’t seen in 15 years.
I read this in an hour or so, as it really is very little and I’m quite certain I’ll have to go back to this next year. It was quite enjoyable, though I think it could have been fleshed out more, even within it’s length constraints. I also felt a bit like I was being beaten over the head with all the symbolism and themes, though again, this may be due to the length. It could also be that they’re just rather obvious and I was looking for them, but the effect wasn’t as helpful as it could have been.
There is very obvious class issues being dealt with in this novella. Jenny and Kitty feel physically repulsed by plain, working class Margaret, deriding not only her clothes and belongings to her face, but going so far as to think her as not being truly human. This eventually is turned around, but it’s definitely not pleasant. It made it really quite hard to sympathise with Jenny, and Kitty was downright unlikeable, but as a study of class distinctions, it’s a worthwhile text.
This was quite sympathetic towards mental illness and the lower classes, making this a really interesting read for me. The prose was quite lovely, though a bit dense at some points, where I found myself skimming passages to get back to the story.
I did like how you could feel the helplessness of the women at home, waiting for news of their men fighting on the Front, who were frequently faced with men returning home vastly different from the men that left. Chris’ mental change is hard for Jenny, Kitty and Margaret to grapple with, but they manage it to varying degrees of success.
The whole existential meaning of the text was interesting as well, though I think it wasn’t the most beautifully written part of the novella. The nature of happiness, sanity and insanity is discussed in depth towards the end of the story, giving the reader some food for thought.
Overall, The Return of the Soldier is quite a lovely example of war literature. It’s really short, so you won’t need much time to go through it, so if you’re interested in a romantic story with some deeper underlying meaning, this is definitely a great little novella to pick up.