When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

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When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An intriguing and thoughtful book about the impact of war on the returning soldier and on the women who were waiting for men who remained "missing", set in the years after the Great War, it remains relevant today.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 496 Date: October 2020
Publisher: Simon and Schuster UK
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1471192173

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1918 and a young man is arrested in Durham Cathedral. He refuses to give a name, no matter how hard they push he will not say who he is. Eventually they determine this isn't wilful obstinance, he doesn't answer because he doesn't know. He remembers being on the road for a long time, and being frightened, and some of the faces from the road, but other than that – everything that came before has gone. They need a name for the forms and so they call him Adam and, because he was found in the Galilee Chapel, it becomes Adam Galilee. A fanciful name for a tired young man in a dishevelled uniform who doesn't know who he is, where he is or how he got there.

He is released into the care of James Haworth and taken to rehabilitation hospital, where they try to help him remember. The difficulty is that Adam is happy not remembering. He has no interest in discovering who he used to be, especially if that means unlocking the memories of France and the war and what he went through, the memories his mind has seen fit to shut down.

Haworth meanwhile has his own demons to deal with, his own wartime experiences haunt his dreams, dreams that he cannot share with his wife, cannot talk to anyone about…and so he becomes increasingly intent on helping Adam.

But who is to determine what help actually means?

In 1920, as the Unknown Warrior is being buried in Westminster Abbey, Adam's photograph is published in a national newspaper asking if anyone recognises him. The response is overwhelming, so many women come forward to claim him as their own: their son, their husband, their brother…so many women whose men did not come back not even as a body or a photograph of grave…so many without definite proof of death are definite that their son, husband, brother is still alive. Some even despite such proof. So many that Adam must meet and disappoint.

The many become three, all of whose claims are plausible. Adam remembers none of them. Surely he would remember his mother, his sister, his wife? Is he playing some game? Are the women? Do they have ulterior motives for claiming this soldier, knowing full well that he is not the one they have lost? And if they were, would it matter, if in accepting it Adam gained a family, a home, a past albeit not his own?

He hasn't forgotten everything. Basic skills have stayed with him, and artistic ones, and deep knowledge of the natural world. Does this speak of deception? Or of the brain's ability to compartmentalise and shut down selectively? And who is the woman that he draws over and over. He remembers her face; claims he doesn't remember her name.

When I Come Home Again is at its heart a story about identity, what it means to be a person – and the degree to which we may deliberately or otherwise determine our own identity. It rootles away at how deeply our identity is ingrained, the things we love, the things we don't lose when (for whatever reason) we lose so much else.

It raises other questions, about how much of our identity is actually unique, how much of it do we share with others. If we were to step into another's life, could enough of it be familiar to the extent that we might think we remember it?

And then, it is also a novel about the nature of loss and the nature of denial. Two of Caroline Scott's historical specialities are the role of women during the First World War and the challenges faced by returning soldiers. On that last level it is an important once because while we might recognise that today's returnees suffer the exact same problems and we have labels to put on their distress (PTSD for one), we don't necessarily know any more about how best to care for them, nor do we devote enough resource to doing so. By 'we' I mean any of us. Just about every country in the world still sends its young men into war zones, and fails to look after them properly when they come home.

Although Adam is central to the story, other returnees with other problems also feature, and the impact on those who DO return to their families, and the impact on those families is part of the fabric.

Scott litters her tale with clues and red herrings in the best mystery-writer way so we are kept guessing as to where the truth really lies. There was a point where I felt that the denouement was going to be a bit of a cop-out, but she takes that right to the brink and then manages a deft turnaround to make it ultimately utterly satisfying.

It's rich in detail as you would expect from an author who is a historian first and only then a novelist, but it wears its research lightly, and its characters will make you believe and will make you think, about then and (hopefully) also a little about now.


If you haven't already come across it we can also recommended Scott's previous novel Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott which is set in the same post-WWI period, and for more on the background to those years you might like to try The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson.

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