The main subject of Hugh MacLennan’s novel is the return of Neil Macrae from France to Halifax in order to clear his name. His uncle, Colonel Geoffrey Wain, had ordered an ill-planned advance on the Germans; Wain tried to blame the resulting debacle on Neil, ordering his arrest and court-martial for cowardice. When a shell hit the dugout in which he was being held prisoner, Neil was reported missing, believed killed. It is revealed, however, that he was picked up, badly wounded and amnesiac, and sent to the hospital. His rescuers believed him to be a private in the British North Country regiment that had relieved the Canadians. He gradually recovered his memory but retained his British identity until he returned to Canada.
This is the situation when the novel opens, and MacLennan leads gradually into his theme by not naming the shabby man wandering through the streets of Halifax in search of the man who can clear him. The reader learns only later who the wanderer is and how he got there, through flashbacks, one of the main narrative techniques of the novel.
Probably influenced by the classical ideals of unity of time, place, and action, MacLennan has limited the action of his novel to eight days, between December 2, 1917, and December 10, 1917, to one place, Halifax, and to the action of Neil returning to claim his good name. The classical aspect is reinforced by the name of the heroine, Penelope (usually called Penny). Neil is the Odysseus figure returning from his travels to unite with Penelope, with whom he has long been in love and who has borne his daughter. Neil does not know about the child, however, since he embarked for France shortly after spending a night with Penny at a hotel.
Neil is searching for Alex Mackenzie, the corporal whom he had sent back to headquarters with a message that would have cleared him of the charge of cowardice. Penny catches a glimpse of Neil on a streetcar and, although she fails to catch up with this man whom she believed dead, she is convinced of his identity and tells her father, Colonel Wain. Wain is back in Halifax...
(The entire section is 855 words.)