22 October 2009

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier



The Return of the Soldier
Rebecca West

At 185 pages, and with a really big font and really big margins, this one definitely falls into the novella category. But what a crackerjack little novella it is. Written in 1918, the essence of the plot is about Captain Chris Baldry, a WWI soldier who returns to England with post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves him with amnesia. He remembers Margaret, a love interest from 15 years previously, but doesn’t remember Kitty, his wife of 10 years. The fact that Margaret is of a lower class than his own, and perhaps more importantly, than his wife's, is an added twist that really seems to drive the Kitty mad.

I think some of the class material is a little heavy handed and even some of the plotting is a little clumsy at times, but I really enjoyed this book. It was one that I found myself reading while walking down the street and riding in elevators because I didn’t want to put it down when I arrived at work. Which is a bit of a shame in some ways. There are moments in the book that compel one to want to read on, but much of the book is also rather atmospheric and would have benefited from more relaxed and sustained reading sessions. The final chapter makes for a pretty fabulous, but not necessarily happy, ending.

Victoria Glendinning’s introduction written in 1980 is rather un-illuminating. John thought it sounded like an uninspired term paper. Are introductions even necessary to most books? In some cases they helpfully explain context that enhances the main event (i.e., the narrative itself). But in many cases they seem rather gratuitous. A way to throw a few dollars, or in this case pounds, to a writer or academic. Not that I am opposed to that, but at least make them good. And more importantly, if an introduction or preface doesn’t help put things in context then make it an afterword instead. Don’t tell me what to think about a book before I read it. Tell me what I thought of it after I have read it (he said, tongue firmly in cheek). What do you think? Are introductions a gratuitous waste of trees?

9 comments:

  1. Not all introductions are created equal. :-) Some I've loved and thought they added to my appreciation of the book, some were just self-important gobblety-gook that barely made sense. My general rule for them is one that one of The Teaching Company professors suggested: If the Introduction is written by the author, go ahead and read it before you read the book. If it's written by anyone else, save it until after and only read it if you want to.

    Lezlie

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  2. No, I love the introductions that come with the Virago Modern classics. Even if one doesn't agree with the interpretation of the book, they often have valuable information about the author/context. As Lezlie says, often best to read after the book.

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  3. You both have good advice. I need to tell my OCD self that it is okay to read an introduction as an afterword...

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  4. I love this book - so short, and even more brilliant because of that. West packs so much in. I need to re-read it slowly.

    I never read introductions until I've finished the book, because usually they give everything away... I think the worst one I've read was the one to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. It was by Elaine Hedges, and completely misreads the story. Tsk.

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  5. Gosh, I was so hoping I had this in the house so I could read it right now! But I don't. I've had the book on my mind for years and really need to read it. And I'm with you on prefaces and introductions and even afterwards. Once in a while I love one, but not so often. And what I hate the most is when they tell me what happens in the book before I read it - hence I never read prefaces until I finish the book, if I read them at all.

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  6. Simon: I can understand wanting to re-read this one.

    Nan: I found my copy quite recently for $2.

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  7. This sounds interesting!

    I almost never read the introductions in a classic...I don't really enjoy literary theory. Sometimes, if I'm really curious after I finish a novel, I'll go back and read it, but that's pretty rare. And like Lezlie, I'd never read an intro before reading the book unless it was written by the author!

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  8. I went to the library today, and found this in a RW collection. Will be starting as soon as I finish my current Agatha Christie. Thanks again for the reminder, Thomas.

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  9. Sometimes the novel is a gratuitous waste of trees if you ask me.
    Sorry, I'm still getting over Joyce.
    What really annoys me is when the back cover blurb only tells you about the author and not what the book's about. Like you're far too highbrow to care about reading an interesting story.

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