The Return of Captain John Emmett
Elizabeth Speller1920. The Great War has been over for two years, and it has left a very different world from the Edwardian certainties of 1914. Following the death of his wife and baby and his experiences on the Western Front, Laurence Bartram has become something of a recluse. Yet death and the aftermath of the conflict continue to cast a pall over peacetime England, and when a young woman he once knew persuades him to look into events that apparently led her brother, John Emmett, to kill himself, Laurence is forced to revisit the darkest parts of the war.
As Laurence unravels the connections between Captain Emmett's suicide, a group of war poets, a bitter regimental feud and a hidden love affair, more disquieting deaths are exposed. Even at the moment Laurence begins to live again, it dawns on him that nothing is as it seems, and that even those closest to him have their secrets ...
I was not surprised to learn that this debut novel was written by an award-nominated poet. Elizabeth Speller’s writing is captivating; her opening scene made me catch my breath.
It is night, and a crowd has gathered on a railway station platform. The women far outnumber the men. The train they are waiting for approaches, but does not stop. All the carriages are brilliantly illuminated, but there is only one passenger on board: it is he the crowd have come to acknowledge.
They are fully aware that he is dead, of course. Because this is 1920, and this is the train that carries the body of the Unknown Soldier from France to London, and a state burial in Westminster Abbey. The reason a majority of women mark his passing is because so many men have been slaughtered at the front.
What an opener. We are then immediately introduced to the main character, Laurence Bartram, who is struggling to rebuild his life after somehow surviving the trenches of The Great War and learning of the sudden death, back in England, of his wife and baby. Bartram feels almost amputated from his pre-war past and is at a loss as to how to live any kind of meaningful life. Then a young woman he once knew re-enters his reclusive existence: she has a task for him to perform.
What Bartram cannot know is that he is about to delve into a past even more disturbing and disquieting than his own.
Like Richard I really appreciated the quality of the writing in this book – direct, haunting, and illuminating.
My heart bled for Laurence Bartlam as he uncomplainingly tries to make sense of the bloody chaos he endured in France, and the heartbreak of losing his devoted wife and their baby.
Then a letter arrives for him from Cambridge. It is from Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend, John. Both men served as infantry officers in the war. Mary explains that her brother has taken his own life, after returning from the battlefields of Picardy. From her letter it is clear that John had been suffering from what was then known as shell-shock; what today we’d call post-battle stress syndrome.
Mary wants Laurence to look into the events that may have led to her brother’s apparent suicide. She wants proper answers and informed explanations.
Laurence cannot possibly know that, by gallantly agreeing, he will soon be confronting some of the bleakest, darkest areas of the recent conflict, including a vicious regimental feud, a very secret affair, and death.
The Return of Captain John Emmet is, quite simply, gripping.
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