The Return Home by Justin Huggler

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The Return Home by Justin Huggler

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Neil Christie
Reviewed by Neil Christie
Summary: Intriguing parallels are drawn between three wartime periods and their effects on one family. But the lack of character development and over-simplified approach to complex moral issues meant this promising sortie into how the past shapes the future soon lost its appeal
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Short Books Ltd
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780722023

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The uniqueness of a boyhood spent growing up in Jersey is conveyed in some memorable imagery in this novel, intersecting the German wartime occupation of the island, the Afghan resistance to the Russians in the 1980s and present-day conflict in Syria. Ben, now working internationally for a human rights advocacy organisation, flits back and forth between reflections on his boyhood and his adult self, He is both attempting to solve the mystery of what became of his uncle Jack, who had a brief but lasting impact on him as a child, and trying to decide how to save his disintegrating marriage. For the first few chapters, I enjoyed these time shifts back and forth, advancing with Ben in understanding the meaning of events which as an eight-year-old he could only partially grasp. Ben also develops a deepening appreciation of the choices he has made in life, such as his choice of career, by examining the influences on his childhood self.

The initial descriptions of characters are vivid and done with an economy of style, particularly in the sections dealing with Ben's boyhood. As children often do, Ben notices everything – mannerisms, behaviour, tone of voice, but lacks the adult understanding of motive. I found his fresh, naïve descriptions of those things compelling to begin with, as I was drawn to supply the blanks and make the connections which the eight-year-old Ben cannot. I thought there was a powerful simplicity in his descriptions of conversations with adults around him, where deep emotions are evoked by very few words.

But while Ben's childhood voice had an authentic ring, each time the story returned to the present I was disappointed that Ben's adult voice didn't sound that much different from a child of the 1980s. His values as an adult seem sometimes to belong to an earlier generation, almost begrudging his wife's wish to return to work after having had children. Ben's response to his wife's adultery is similarly childlike, split between denial and violent argument. He casually describes feelings of extreme violence towards her but never stops to reflect on these, odd in a novel which otherwise has so much introspection.

In fact Ben attempts to resolve all the big questions in his life – whether he should leave his wife, whether he should continue with his career - through talking to himself. I felt trapped in this narrow quest as Ben becomes increasingly obsessed with comparing himself to those around him, occasionally feeling intimidated when others, like his brother, have been more successful. I found it difficult to care about the lives of most characters in this novel as apart from Ben, the only other character who develops and becomes more real is his enigmatic uncle Jack.

Jack's story does bring to life some difficult questions of whether the act of reporting can ever be morally neutral. His very presence in the mountains of Afghanistan has had life-changing consequences for those around him. The novel also vividly describes how restlessness and adrenalin seeking can be drivers for war reportage and the work done by human rights campaigners in conflict zones. Set against this are reminders that without the guts of those involved, there would be fewer witnesses to the barbarity and suffering of human conflict. But while dealing with important themes is well and good, I would have welcomed more exploration of the complexities these involve. Ben's organisation is leaned on by the British government to suppress certain aspects of a report on Syria, but rather than building on its dramatic potential, the moral dilemma this situation creates for Ben is resolved almost as a footnote.

The main difficulty I had with The Return Home is how less and less is required of the reader as the story develops. Joining up the dots on behalf of the eight-year-old Ben is enjoyable, but instead of providing intriguing clues, those chapters dealing with the present-day have obtrusive signposts, telling us what to think, often in an overly sentimental way. Overall I felt stifled rather than challenged by what at first promised to be an absorbing exploration of the human cost of conflict and resonances from the past.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of the book. For those readers who would like to further explore the story of civilians caught up in the German occupation of Jersey and Guernsey, I would recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. You might also enjoy When The Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea.

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