In the prologue to “The Soldier’s Return,” Melvyn Bragg offers a sly, artfully vague hint of the troubles to come. The author shifts the point of view among three characters: an English soldier fighting the Japanese in Burma during World War II; his wife, who is studying an atlas and wondering about her husband’s exotic whereabouts; and their young son, who dreams about the father he barely remembers. All three are hoping for a reunion. Surely, when this soldier, Sam Richardson, returns, he and his wife, Ellen, and 6-year old Joe will rejoice in the bright future that awaits them in a new, liberated Europe.
Bragg invokes his reader’s conventional views of valiant World War II fighters risking their young lives to bring down tyranny. We imagine their proud loved ones anxiously waiting for them in remote villages. On that one page, however, Bragg also conveys Ellen’s newfound independence, Joe’s insecurity about his father’s love, and Sam’s anticipation of not only peace but also recognition in exchange for what he’s suffered for his country. When Sam returns, he learns the truth: “No bunting. The German conflict had ended almost a year ago now. The war had gone cold.” The Allied campaign in Burma was referred to as the “Forgotten War” for good reason: By 1945, the inhabitants of Wigton, Sam’s hometown, are eager to forget the whole tragic affair.
Bragg’s subtle warnings foreshadow the entire tone of “The Soldier’s Return.” And sometimes it’s what Bragg chooses not to say, particularly about the war, that resonates most powerfully. These painful silences echo those of his characters. Sam finds he cannot talk about the war despite the earnest proddings of his wife and friends. Ellen feels guilty disclosing to her own friends the sad truth about her very altered husband and their increasingly destructive relationship. Joe, in a wordless plea for help, starts wetting his bed — his once loving, small world has begun to crumble. And then there are the letters that Sam, a corporal, writes to the families of soldiers who’ve died, often calling their fallen sons “heroes,” when they actually perished, for example, while cleaning a grenade. The characters’ omissions and lies weigh on us, and we wait for the dam to burst. What Bragg does reveal — “He did not write of the puddle of brains seeping out of the skull of Andy” — only adds to the swelling grief of the story.
Bragg is at his best when describing life in Wigton with its colorful pubs, eccentric old tramps, ragamuffin gangs of kids and sweet, intimate local dances and fairs. As Sam walks through Wigton for the first time in four years, he realizes that nothing much has changed: “Ahead of him was High Steet. He had walked it thousands of times, still jewelled with small useful shops, many of them with workshops behind making boots, making clocks and watches, butching, baking bread and cakes. Still there. Untouched though the world had gone mad: their complete survival made him smile.”
But Sam, of course, has changed: “He began to feel claustrophobic. Just a street in a small Northern market town. Hello Sam, Hiya Sam, lovely day. He saw nobody from the war. Some at work — the non-Burma lads — didn’t make it back.” What’s missing in Wigton, it seems, is the war. For all the horrors of war, Sam has come home imbued with a sense of worth and utility, and nothing else — certainly not in Sam’s limited, working-class reality — measures up. But when Sam yearns to move to Australia and start anew, Ellen clings to the comforting normalcy of Wigton.
What happened to Sam in Burma — what he saw, who was lost to him — is revealed much later in the novel, after Bragg has convinced us that no one can understand the catastrophe of war except its most intimate witnesses. What will become of Sam, whose unrestrained anger has shattered his wife and child? “The Soldier’s Return” conveys the life-wrenching effects of war so well that a tidy ending would seem manufactured. So I wasn’t prepared for how moving and hopeful, even in its ambiguity and uncertainty, the last scene is. Bragg’s conclusion is a tender tribute to soldiers like Sam — the ones who returned and bravely marched on, attempting to shoulder the burden of unmerciful memory all on their own.