Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller--Review

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 9780547511696, 384pp., July 5, 2011

Laurence Bartram is a veteran of the Great War. He's emotionally wounded not just by his war experiences, but even more, by the death of his wife and child in childbirth, at the very moment he was caught up in the worst of the battles he survived. He's living in London, ostensibly working on a book about London's churches, but in reality merely existing.

Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of a school friend. The friend, John Emmett, had returned home more mentally and emotionally wounded by his war than Laurence had, and while being treated in what is for the time a very modern mental hospital, he escaped and committed suicide. John did not leave a note, and Mary wants to understand why he died. Laurence wasn't as close to John as Mary had hoped, but he agrees--partly because Mary herself strikes the first spark of interest and life that he's felt since he learned of his wife's death--to look into John's war and post-war experiences, and see if he can find an answer for her. The problem catches the interest of his friend Charles Carfax, also--and if truth be told Charles, who is a great reader of mystery and detective novels, fears Laurence may not quite know how to go on with an investigation on his own.

Together, they gather the pieces of John's war.  Some unexplained bequests to apparent strangers in his will lead them to a tragic, and botched, execution of a young officer for desertion; a trench collapse which John is only barely rescued alive by a soldier he thinks is guilty of rape and murder; the time he spent being treated for injuries and illness by a nurse who is now married to one of the men who helped get him out of the collapsed trench. Speller skillfully and delicately paints us a picture of a courageous, moral, kind man who was killed by the war as surely as any of the battlefield casualties. At the same time, we get to know Laurence and Mary as they come back to life, as well as other survivors of the war. As we get closer and closer to the hidden cause of John's death, we care more and more, and at the same time, find compassion for nearly everyone involved.

This is a thoughtful and moving study of the aftermath of the Great War for those who survived it and had to learn to live with the consequences.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.