The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

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The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This debut novel centres around the aftermath of World War One - the Great War. A trail of devastation and tragedy engulfs the country and Speller introduces us to one particular family, the Emmetts, as various members attempt to re-build their shattered lives. Elizabeth Speller was kind enough to talk to Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844086078

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Laurence Bartram has survived the war, but his life has changed dramatically. It will never be the same again. It's almost as if he doesn't recognize himself. Domestic life is now non-existent and he has no-one to please but himself. He is unsettled and edgy. War has obviously left its mark. He retreats graciously and wonders what he'll do with the rest of his life.

He doesn't have to wonder for too long. Adventure beckons and he seizes the day. Straight away, you get the sense of the man, the essence of the man. He's a decent human being who is trying desperately not to wallow in self-pity.

A school friend from way back (one John Emmett) has apparently taken his own life. But young men like John don't commit suicide, do they? The Emmett family is distraught, especially one member and appeals to Laurence's sense of humanity and decency. Both Laurence and John had enjoyed the best of education that England had to offer. They were destined to do great things - and all with a stiff upper lip.

Except Laurence thought himself nothing special, just rather dull and ordinary ... among the ordinary sort. If the war hadn't come, they would all have become stout solicitors and brewers, doctors and cattle-breeders ... And John - who was special - was now dead. The utter unfairness of it all, the bloody unfairness of war, in fact, drips from the page.

We all know that many books and films have centred on the blood-and-guts of war, perhaps less so the mental and emotional effects of war. And here Speller paints a vivid picture time and time again about the horror of the trenches and close combat fighting. All the men are pitifully young. A generation almost wiped out.

I couldn't help but draw a parallel with today's conflict in Afghanistan. The newly erected Cenotaph gets a few mentions in this novel and here we are today, nearly a century on and the crowds marching past the Cenotaph are increasing, not decreasing. The madness of war? Speller also tells us of the moving scenes as the war dead come home by train. There are similar moving scenes today (and probably tomorrow) as hearse after hearse travel down the main street in a small town in Wiltshire.

This novel is all about one big, fat, gripping mystery. A historical mystery. And no, you don't need to have an interest in war or anything military to enjoy this book.

When the cerebral Laurence joined forces (conveniently?) with his affable, larger-than-life chum, Charles I immediately thought of Poirot and his sidekick, Hastings.

What is also writ large in this novel is the 'two-tiered' given of war and no questions asked. Men who were automatically given a commission - and those who were not. For example, ... a miner didn't get a commission. Men who gallantly fought, risked their lives daily to painfully find out that ... the things they thought they were fighting for suddenly seemed hopelessly sentimental and irrelevant . Little wonder men went slowly mad.

This novel is an enthralling mystery which will keep you guessing throughout. There are lots of satisfying twists and turns involving the complexities, failings and downright heroism of the human spirit. There's also the odd red herring so that the reader doesn't become too complacent. I wonder if this is going to be an ongoing mystery-solving partnership.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to read Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. We've also enjoyed Elizabeth Speller's autobiographical work The Sunlight on the Garden.

Buy The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller is in the Richard and Judy's Summer Reading List 2011.
Bookinterviews.jpg Elizabeth Speller was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

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