When Chris returns from the trenches of the First World War he has lost the memory of the last fifteen years. He is still in love with first love Margaret, an innkeeper's daughter, despite the fact that she has gone to seed and is now a decidedly lower class housewife. He has forgotten all about his own wife Kitty, who tries to rationalise her situation as that of a wife whose husband is having an affair with a chorus girls, and tries to use clothes and jewellery and high-class taste to reseduce her husband. The story is narrated by a third woman, his cousin Jenny, who has always loved Chris and whose refined and massively snobbish tastebuds cannot bear to see him so besotted by someone so common. Jenny is a magnificently cruel narrator. She is horrible about the lower class, more or less blaming them for their poverty because of their inelegance. But as the book winds on and Jenny witnesses the tenderness between Chris and Margaret, and compares it with the marriage of manners between Chris and Kitty, Jenny sees the ugly, dowdy Margaret more and more as an angel, and she sees the pretty refined Kitty as cruel and false.
And the three women have to decide whether to let Chris continue, happy but deluded, or whether truth is more important than happiness.
Although the soldier has physically returned at the start of the book, it is only at the very end that Jenny looks at Chris and sees him as "every inch a soldier".
There are some strong lines in this and some beautiful characterisation.
- "She looked so like a girl on a magazine cover that one expected to find a large '7d' somewhere attached to her person." (p 6) Kitty. And of course she is. And this is all she is.
- "Just because our performance had been so brilliantly adequate, how dreary was the empty stage." (p 13)
- "She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff." (pp 15 - 16)
- "That mysterious human impulse to smile triumphantly at the spectacle of a fellow creature occupied in baseness." (p 17)
- "Strangeness had come into the house and everything was appalled by it, even time. For the moments dragged." (p 39)
- "And as he spoke her warm body melted to nothingness in his arms. The columns that had stood so hard and black against the quavering tide of moonlight and starlight tottered and dissolved. He was lying in a hateful world where barbed-wire entanglements showed impish knots against a livid sky full of booming noise and splashes of fire and wails for water, and the stretcher bearers were hurting his back intolerably." (p 63) This is a brilliant piece of writing. There have been several paragraphs of romance as the love affair reaches its height. Then there is the sentence about the columns which seems to suggest how male sexual desire ends in limpness. And suddenly we are back in the squalor of the trenches where the sound of the guns and the explosions are counterpointed against the cries of those injured. A stunning descent from passion into pathos, from romance into the brutality of the muddy world, from power into feebleness. Magnificent.
- "It was a town of people who could not do as they liked." (p 69)
- "Not so much digging as exhibiting his incapacity to deal with a spade." (p 71)
- "He was a lank man with curly grey hairs growing from every place where it is inadvisable that hairs should grow, from the inside of his ears, from his nostrils, on the back of his hands." (p 74)
- "This was no place for beauty that has not been mellowed but lacerated by time." (p 85)
- "But that she was wise, that the angels would of a certainty be on her side, did not make her any the less physically offensive to our atmosphere." (p 86)
- "Grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of the sand; one snarl's at one's company; thoughts prick one through one's sleep like mosquitoes ..." (p 97)
- "A tree that had been torn up by the roots in the great gale last year, but had not yet resigned itself to death and was bravely decking itself with purple elm-flowers." (p 98) This is a stunning visual metaphor for the destruction of the world in the aftermath of the Great War and for the destruction of the family occasioned by the return of the soldier.
- "A slut sits at the door of a filthy cottage, counting some dirty linen and waving her bare arms at some passing soldiers." (p 103)
- "The splendid house which was not so much a house as a vast piece of space partitioned off from the universe and decorated partly for beauty and partly to make our privacy more insolent." (p 109)
- "She was the sober thread whose interweaving with our scattered magnificences had somehow achieved the design that otherwise would not appear." (p 109)
- "The mental life that can be controlled by effort isn't the mental life that matters. You've been stuffed up when you were young with talk about a thing called self-control - a sort of barmaid of the soul that says, 'Time's up, gentlemen', and 'Here, you've had enough'. There's no such thing." (p 124)
- "She had always nourished a doubt as to whether Chris was really, as she put it, practical; his income and his international reputation weighed as nothing against his so evident inability to pick up pieces at sales." (p 125)
- "You don't notice how little there is in the Bible really till you go to it for help." (p 134)
- "A once prized pet that had fallen from favour and now was only to be met whining upward for a little love at every passer in the corridors." (p 135)
I could have picked more gems. And this is not a Wildean novel of scattered epigrams. These are thoroughly in character as the narrator realises the shallowness and inauthenticity of the world in which she lives, as the story travels towards its tragedy.
This is a stunning short novel. How is it that I have never read such a consummately brilliant author before? Indeed, I had scarcely heard of her, except in connection with H G Wells, with whom she had an affair. Everyone had heard of HGW. Well, Wells writes well but on this evidence West was so much better.
February 2017; 140 pages