Books: The soldier who took his war home
The Soldier's Return by Melvyn Bragg Sceptre pounds 16.99
Sunday 12 September 1999
That's the plot of Melvyn Bragg's 18th novel, The Soldier's Return. There are no twists or complications, no sudden changes of direction, no sub- plots to speak of, nothing flash or fancy: just a steady accretion of detail. It's a rich, solid read, like chewing fruit cake. Bragg is especially effective at evoking a sense of place: the town of Wigton, with its market, its lanes and alleys and its unsanitary cottages; a day out in Silloth, with donkey rides on the springy turf and a game of cricket on the hard sand above the tide line; flashbacks to the temples, pagodas and horrors of Burma: these are all realised with almost three-dimensional clarity. So, too, is the sense of period - not just in the detail, the Woodbines, the dance bands and the pints of bitter that cost one and tuppence, but in a general mood of hope and weariness, of wanting to forget the war but being still held by it.
Wigton is fully populated: a whole community of named, believable characters surround Sam, Ellen and Joe. But it's these three on whom the story centres and the narrative adopts their viewpoints alternately. Sam is intelligent but uneducated and woefully conscious of this. A loving husband and father, he's nevertheless prone to jealousy and fits of temper. He's reticent about his feelings; the atrocities he has seen are locked away inside him. Ellen makes a very good match for him, as both partner and opponent. She is grounded, centred in Wigton, a beautiful ordinary woman who knows what an achievement it is to stay ordinary in difficult times. Joe is perhaps the best realised of all. He is both proud and frightened of his dad. He wants to make friends with the tough kids of town, who bully him. He's a daredevil in his imagination, a Mammy's boy by temperament. Bragg himself was brought up in Wigton and would have been Joe's age in 1946; it's tempting to speculate that there are autobiographical elements in the portrait.
Bragg's prose is meticulous and efficient. When he describes something, it stays described. But it has to be said that his style is a bit lacking in sparkle. There are no verbal fireworks here, no phrases that hook themselves into your brain, nothing you'd feel impelled to quote aloud. He's happy to use off-the-peg phrases rather than tailor new ones, if they say what he wants to say. Characters are "electrified with excitement", they "slip into reveries", they go off into a world of their own", they "rise to the bait". This is a pity, because when, in the last words of the novel, the cliche "rooted to the spot" is used, "rooted" actually has a precise and significant metaphorical sense, but risks going unnoticed in the company of so many other set phrases. Bragg might be defended on the grounds that these homely phrases reflect the kind of language his characters would use themselves; but if so, he's not consistent. In one of Ellen's interior monologues, for instance, the word "elliptical" is used - surely not likely to be part of her vocabulary.
But then it's clearly not the telling of the story, but the story itself that primarily interests Bragg. And he has to be judged successful in communicating his interest. It's a good, honest, old-fashioned story, of the kind that could have been told at any time in the last 50 years, and could probably be told at any time in the next 50, or indeed for as long as we continue to be interested in personal relationships. By the end I was turning the pages faster and faster, anxious to find out whether Sam or Ellen could manage to hold on to each other, or whether their relationship would snap like a piece of overstretched elastic, sending Sam flying to the other side of the world. And what happened? You'll have to read the novel.
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