The First World War remains one of the most devastating conflicts in history, particularly in terms of the scale and manner of deaths on the battle fronts.
But even after the guns fell silent in 1918, the bitter legacy of a cruel war lingered on for decades as those who were bereaved faced the terrible grief of losing their loved ones, and families coped with the devastating physical and mental damage wreaked on the broken men who made it back.
Historian and highly acclaimed author Caroline Scott, whose haunting novel, The Photographer of the Lost, contemplated the horrific aftermath of the Great War in the ruins of France and Belgium, returns to this emotive backdrop for a powerful exploration of the impact of the war on women, and the challenges faced by returning soldiers.
Inspired by her Lancashire family’s wartime memorabilia, Scott once again turns back the clock to the final months of the war when families were desperate to discover if their husbands, sons or brothers, who had been reported missing in action, were dead or alive.
Many of these tortured souls had clung on to hope in the face of years of uncertainty, dreaming, longing and even firmly believing that their loved ones only needed to be found. And it is this heart-rending dilemma that forms the backdrop to Scott’s moving story of a soldier who returns to England with no memory, no identity… and maybe no real desire to know who he is.
In November of 1918, the last week of the Great War, a uniformed soldier with no identity disc, pay book or service number, is arrested in Durham Cathedral after he chalks a phoenix rising from the flames on a tomb in the Galilee Chapel.
When questioned by the police, it becomes clear he has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. The soldier is given the name Adam Galilee and transferred to a rehabilitation institute at Loughrigg Hall in the Lake District where he draws a woman’s face again and again… he doesn’t know who she is but he senses that he misses her and doesn’t want to forget her.
His psychiatrist, James Haworth, who served on the Western Front, is determined to ‘unravel’ who this man once was but Adam doesn’t want to be unravelled. Fearful that he might have a good reason to forget, and unwilling to relive the trauma of war, Adam has locked his memory away, preferring to look out at other’s ‘dramas and domesticities’ than find a way back to his own.
Meanwhile, James has his own demons to battle. Haunted by events during the war which involved the death of his wife Caitlin’s beloved twin brother Nat, James is under scrutiny too from his patient Adam who sees the doctor’s ‘resting face scribbled over by melancholy.’
Two years later and with James no nearer to knowing who Adam really is, a newspaper publishes a photograph of Adam and a feature on soldiers suffering from amnesia. Soon hundreds of women come forward, claiming that Adam is someone they lost in the war, but only three of them are plausible candidates.
Suddenly Adam has people who urgently need him to remember. But does he believe any of these women, or is there another family out there waiting for him to come home?
When I Come Home Again is one of the most haunting novels of a year which has seen how lives can be turned upside down so drastically and catastrophically with the advent of one world-changing event. The end of the Great War brought with it a new social and political landscape in Europe, but in the immediate aftermath, a toxic mix of grief and guilt stunted the lives of many.
All the more powerful because it is based on true events, Scott’s tense and compelling mystery story – with so many broken lives at its centre – is a timely reminder that the repercussions of war are lasting, painful and tragic.
Identity, memory, love and loss are explored with an observant eye, a warm compassion and a lyrical prose that digs deep into the anguish of the three women who are desperate to fill the void that blights both their present and their future, and whose plight encapsulates the suffering of thousands.
From Adam, fearful of what truths might lie beneath his amnesia, and James, torn apart by guilt over events on the Western Front, to the women who queued to claim the lost soldier as their own, these are characters beautifully drawn and so achingly real.
But there is also hope and redemption in this resonant story; a reminder that love can heal, that guilt can be assuaged, that some memories never fade… and that new beginnings are possible, however impossible that may once have seemed.
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £8.99)