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My generation is debatably the first generation not to be affected by the Second World War. My two grandfathers fought in the war, so there is a little first hand connection with the horrific events, but there is no direct effect. The generation below have almost no first hand contact with the war and so it fades into history, to be viewed in the same way as other bloody conflicts from the nineteenth century. But is this true, when does war end? Is it just those that directly fought that were changed forever, what about the young children, the ones that spent the formative years of their life, with an absent father? How did this impact on them? Melvyn Bragg's 15th novel, The Soldier's Return, in part deals with the after effects of war, what happens to those that return and have to adjust to what used to be normality, but on return, after the horrors of war, so called normality is an alien concept; can the returning "heroes" just slip back into family life like nothing happened? Who can they talk to about the horrors that replay again and again in the mind? The author, Melvyn Bragg is a cultural figure: a novelist for both adults and children; a writer of non-fiction; a TV presenter; a producer of TV documentaries; a writer of screenplays, musicals and a play; president of the National Campaign for the Arts; and a life peer. If I missed something, forgive me, but Bragg has constantly strived to bring literature and art to the wider public in somewhat of an informal manner and so his achievements are wide and high. However, this is my first direct foray into his works, I have never been a fan of his TV works and thus tended to rather ignore his literature. Having read The Soldier's Return, this policy has definitely been a mistake. It is 1946; the location is Wigton, a small market town, nestling amongst the lakes in Cumbria, Sam Richardson is returning home, he has been away for 5 years, fighting in Burma, he
has seen the worst and best that human nature can throw at you and he is alive, he can return to a normal life. That is it, the army give him is de-mob suit and throw him back to the real world with a quick thank you and there you are, go and get on with things. He has a wife, Ellen and a young son, Joe aged 6 who has no memory of his father, other than a faded picture that he used to kiss goodnight. Sam returns to find Joe sleeping in the marital bed and under the watchful eye of Ellen's uncle and a teacher that lodges in the same house as Ellen and Joe. Sam's job has gone, Wigton seemingly has stood still and life seems to have taken on a surreal quality. Sam has horror locked in his mind and a raging anger, which seems to have no source or direction and most of all he cannot seem to talk to anybody about the mental torture that he seems to be experiencing. Joe has turned into a mammy's boy, Ellen seems happy stuck in the dead-end Wigton and inside Sam rages. It is therefore hardly surprising that return does not result in a life smelling of roses, all three people have to make massive adjustments. Sam loves Ellen and Joe, but can that be enough to get them through? Furthermore, Sam's own father, on return from the First World War, became a strange and angry man, will history repeat itself? Is Joe a young Melvyn? This is a question that has frequently been posed and the answer is no, but the book clearly draws on Bragg's own experience of the returning father. Joe is roughly the same age as Bragg, Bragg was brought up in Wigton and in interviews Bragg has admitted that there is a touch of the auto-biography about the novel. This to me adds to the depth of the book, I was left with a sense that this story, despite being fiction was entirely believable. This is a tale simply told, Bragg uses simple and blunt language, but at the same time manages to portray a myriad of heartfelt emotion, the writing transfer
s the reader to the post war world in an easy manner and is thoroughly convincing of its portrayal of the internal struggle of two people who love each other, but cannot articulate their feelings for each other. "Sam had sought ways to lead up to it but found none. It should have been easy enough. There should have been a casual way to introduce it but since the rift following Ellen's suggestion that they move house, both of them had trodden carefully. They were polite, they deferred, they were hesitant; an observer might have thought that they were distant cousins, recently reunited. But Sam knew that Ellen was only waiting to launch another attack and Ellen had picked up, in the way intimates do, that Sam was concealing something important." How this passage must ring true to all that have been in a long-term relationship and encountered difficulties, one party wants one thing, the other wants another and the whole big issue seems to fester under the surface. Therefore in addition to this being a novel about the huge difficulties encountered by the returning service men to Civvy Street, it is also a novel about a relationship in trouble, about the difficulties of the father son relationship and a novel about love, its boundaries and its power. It is a tale of the stoic soldier, suffering, aware of the suffering but locked inside themselves, unable to release their burden onto those that they hold so dear. This is a charming book, it is carefully constructed, beautifully plotted, cleverly written, emotional and to my knowledge an accurate reconstruction of the history of the time. I was engrossed in the tale, moved to tears by the final chapter and left thoroughly in awe of all who were involved in this difficult period of our history. My generation should read it and realise how lucky we are. The follow up to this book, charting Joe's next 7 years, A Son of War came out this summer and I will look forw
ard to reading it with relish. Some critics call this the best English novel of the last ten years, perhaps, but the subject matter is incredibly important and we should not forget. The Soldier's Return is published in paper back by Sceptre, costs £6.99 and is a hugely enjoyable 375 pages long. "When you go home, tell them of us and say.....For your tomorrow we gave our today."
When Sam Richardson returns from World War II to Wigton in Cumbria, he finds little has changed, as far as his own limited prospects go. In his absence, though, his young family has changed immensely, and Sam struggles to adjust to life in peacetime.