Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
The Return of the Soldier - Rebecca West, Victoria Glendinning How could you not enjoy a book that includes the idea of "an over-confiding explanation made by a shabby visitor while using the door-mat almost too zealously"?

In this slim novel set during WW1, Charles and Kitty live in tasteful opulence, along with his cousin Jenny, who tells the story of Charles' memory loss. He returns to England with no memory of the last 15 years, desperate to see his youthful (and lower class) love, Margaret, who is also now married to someone else.

The story is really about the three women, their relationship with Charles, each other and their attitude to his condition. Can and should they persuade him of the truth, when he seems so happy as he is?

Sections of it read more like poetry: "The dusk flowed in wet and cool... as if to put out the fire of confusion... and the furniture, very visible through the soft evening opacity with the observant brightness of old well-polished wood, seemed terribly aware. Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time."

It is enhanced by some significant, and no doubt deliberate, omissions. In particular, we never know the content of some letters and Jenny is not privy to all that passes between Charles and Margaret when he returns.

There are dark but insightful asides ("desolate merriment of an inattentively played pianola") and dark themes.

The pain of confusion caused by memory loss is the most obvious: "all the inhabitants of this new tract of time were his enemies, all its circumstances his prison bars" and "his loss of memory was a triumph over the limitation of language which prevents the mass of men making explicit statement about their spiritual relationships".

More strangely, Jenny idolises Charles far too much for a platonic cousin, though oddly, it doesn't seem to cause any friction. She talks of her "frenzied love", his "amazing goodness", "our task of refreshing him" and "passion for Chris was our point of honour".

There are nasty attitudes to the lower middle classes. Jenny finds Margaret physically repellent, though she tries to be outwardly polite. In her narration, she mentions the "squalor" of Margaret's home (though Margaret can afford a part-time maid), that she is "not so much a person as an implication of dreary poverty" and that "it would have been such agony to the finger tips to touch any part of her apparel".

In contrast, Charles' ancestral home was "a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent". Despite, or more probably because of her more humble background, Margaret sees through this brittle and selfish beauty to reveal the burden of wealth, "It's a big place. How poor Chris must have worked to keep it up." Jenny's unspoken response is that "It had been our pretence that by... organising a costly life we had been the servants of his desire. But she revealed the truth".

I doubt modern readers will have much fondness for Kitty or Jenny, but it is a poignant and excellently written book.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China MiƩville, Mervyn Peake
Mervyn Peake