Monday, 29 August 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller.
1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife & baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become a recluse. The conflict continues to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when he is persuaded to look into the events that led to John Emmett’s suicide, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war. As he unravels the connections between Emmett, a group of war poets, and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that some of those closest to him have their secrets.
This is a very good book, an elegy, a detective story, carefully researched, well written. I don’t think it is giving away too much to say it concerns the dreadful death by firing squad of a so-called deserter, a British officer, in WWI, and that Capt Emmett was a witness. It's also about the separate experiences of men and women after the war, and how only those women who had nursed could begin to understand something of what the men had been through.

It’s a serious novel obviously, gruelling at times, but please do read it. I'm only sorry I bought the Kindle edition, as I'd much rather have had the paper version -  it's quite complicated and a book I want to keep. A Richard and Judy Bookclub top pick. Here’s a link to the author’s website, but don't watch the R&J interview until you've read the book. Here's a review from the Independent

It so happens that Elizabeth Speller is the niece of Susan Kennaway, the author of The Yellow Duster Sisters reviewed below just recently. (Elizabeth's mother was Susie's sister Gyll, the taller one on the cover)  Elizabeth, too, has written a memoir, The Sunlight on the Garden, which fills in more of the background of this unusual eccentric family with its ducal upstairs and rural downstairs connections, along with sexual indiscretions, commercial riches and aristocratic rags. 'A family in Love, War and Madness' is the subtitle.
Some of her family have been afflicted by depression, including, a long time ago, the author herself.  She writes bravely and eloquently on this subject in a chapter towards the end of the book, yet even then her wry sense of humour doesn’t desert her.  It’s impressive that she finally becomes a mature student at Lucy Cavendish, Cambridge, and goes on to become the successful writer, academic and poet she is today.  And she's charming too - I met her at the other Susie V's launch without really taking in who she was, and only bought The Return of Captain J Emmett at random because I sometimes agree with R&J.

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