The Soldier’s Return

Sam Richardson returns home to Wigton in northern England after years away fighting in the “Forgotten Army” of the Burma campaign during World War II. His reunion with his wife and son is joyous, everything each had longed for.

But even as they meet, tensions spawned during the war threaten their future. Having witnessed death and atrocities in combat, Sam is plagued by nightmares and a despairing restlessness. His wife, Ellen, has grown accustomed to being on her own during his absence, and her bond to Joe, their six-year-old, is possessively close. Initially happy together, Ellen and Sam drift apart as he feels jealous of her relationship with Joe, and she senses a strangeness in him that he cannot express to her. Class-ridden Wigton and his dead-end factory job begin to suffocate Sam’s spirit, so when a chance comes to emigrate to Australia, he seizes upon it with desperate relief. Ellen is just as terrified to leave Wigton as Sam is to stay and insists they spend their meager savings to buy a house, however dilapidated. As the novel draws to close, although they love each other, they can no longer converse frankly about their feelings, and their marriage verges on ruin. Their surprising, deeply moving, last- minute reconciliation leaves them together but yet unsettled.

Melvyn Bragg conveys the family’s joys and miseries with masterful delicacy. He shows how anxiety can overshadow love, reticence stymie passion, and memories unravel family bonds, and he does it without striking a false emotional note or forcing an explanation of the characters’ psyches. It is a sad, brave, humane tale. Bragg writes with insight about the way a war blights the hopes even of the victors.