Kiwiflora's Reviews > The Return of Captain John Emmett

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller
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Jun 09, 2011

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Shell shock - psychological disturbance caused by prolonged exposure to active warfare, especially being under bombardment, origin - First World War (Oxford Dictionary).

This novel is about the effects of shell shock on soldiers, and how very misunderstood these effects were by the military, the medical profession and families. This was a war unlike any form of war before and it changed forever the way wars were conducted. But as with all war, it is not the generals and commanders who bear the brunt of it, but the soldiers themselves who desperately try to deal with it, and their families who have absolutely no idea what their son or husband has been through.

In a what goes on tour stays on tour sort of way, this novel looks at the long term effects of the secrets of war business. In this case execution for desertion and/or cowardice by a firing squad comprised of fellow soldiers. Over 300 British and Commonwealth private soldiers were executed during WWI and of these only 3 were British officers. There were over 3000 soldiers including officers who were found guilty of desertion/cowardice but the sentences were generally commuted. It was extremely rare for an officer to be punished by fellow officers.

Now, a century later, we know about the horrors of WWI and trench warfare and the truly miserable frightening experience it would have been for anyone, regardless of whether they were a private or an officer. And this book pulls no punches in its descriptions of these horrors. Is it any wonder ordinary men placed in these extra- ordinary circumstances had complete breakdowns, and found themselves paralysed with fright.

This novel takes the real life executions of two soldiers and combines them into the story of an officer killed by firing squad. In 1920, Lawrence Bartram, ex-Western Front himself, recently widowed, aspiring writer of a history of English cathedrals, is living a life in limbo. He is approached by Mary, the sister of an old school friend, Captain John Emmett, who has recently died, apparently by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Mary thinks a lot of things about the death don't add up, including the bequests John left in his will, and she approaches Lawrence to help her unravel her brother's complicated life. It soon becomes apparent that a string of apparently unconnected deaths are in fact all connected to John, a group of war poets, and the events that resulted in the execution of the officer.

This book is a number of things - a murder mystery, an analysis of the psychological effects of battle, a love story, but mainly a tribute and attempt to understand what the average man had to endure during and after the war. And all that is very good. But because there is so much going on, and so many tails to keep track of, the story, for me was slow moving, at time ponderous and it felt like it was taking an absolute age to get through. The author has a lot to say about the war, too much perhaps, which results in some complicated and possibly unnecessary plot lines and characters as she tries to tell us as much as she can.

Her characters, however, are very believable, although the mysterious Captain John Emmett does perhaps come across as a bit too good to be real! We really only know about him after his death, and maybe, like we do with our memories of people who die, we tend to only focus on the best parts of that person and associated memories. The phrase 'looking through rose-tinted glasses' springs to mind!

Despite this the book is very evocative of what immediate post-war civilian life could have been like - listlessness and lack of direction, many many people dealing with terrible grief, trying to create something that resembles pre-war normality.

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