The Soldier's Return
Melvyn Bragg Sceptre 346pp, £16.99
Melvyn Bragg's 17th novel begins, conventionally enough, with a soldier returning home from Burma. It is the summer of 1946, and he has not seen his wife, Ellen, and young son for four years. Home is Wigton in Cumbria, where Bragg grew up and which has become a haunting presence in his fiction. This is a return to the location of his debut novel, For Want of a Nail (1965), and his oral history, Speak for England (1976); as such it is deeply rooted in the local soil, from which it derives much of its curious appeal.
Although the structure is conventional - its omniscient narrator allows the reader to share the thoughts and motivations of the central characters - and its theme, that of a soldier returning home, is all too familiar, Bragg has produced a convincing tale of an everyman struggling to come to terms with profound individual and social change. After the initial joy of the homecoming, Sam and Ellen realise their long separation has placed intolerable strains on their relationship. Sam, in particular, is baffled by his wife's hard-won independence and competes zealousy with their six-year-old son for her attention. Postwar England is also something of a disappointment to him, and class prejudice is never far away.
The displaced soldier begins to dream of emigrating to Australia, an aspiration not shared by Ellen, who grapples painfully with the growing realisation that she is now married to a stranger - a man changed for ever by his wartime experiences. She comes to realise, too, how dependent she is on the town, and her place within it, for emotional sustenance.
The couple are constrained further by their inability to talk about their marriage, believing such criticism to be a "betrayal" of the other. Their unease gives the novel much of its dramatic thrust and casts this reader, at least, in the role of a child torn between conflicting parental loyalties.
What is most impressive about the novel, in the end, are the sparse descriptive passages of the physical landscape and the way in which Bragg weaves a chronicle of social change into the larger narrative.
In doing so, he offers a series of snapshots of a now vanished world where community was central to everyday life and created continuity between generations. This is seen most powerfully in the transplantation of entire families from streets they had lived in for generations to newly built council houses - a move the reader knows will change the community for ever.
Melvyn Bragg has recently spoken of writing another novel about Wigton. On the strength of The Soldier's Return, one hopes it will be soon.