Book Review: When I Come Home Again

Oh! My! Goodness!  This book evokes a powerful, emotional response (yes, it made my eyes leak!); it created a world I yearned to step in to … and yet never to be part of; it elicits an understanding … and yet a sense of disbelief.  This haunting story will stay with me for quite some time.

historical fiction | mystery

Rating: 5 out of 5.

the blurb

They need him to remember. He wants to forget.

1918. In the last week of the First World War, a uniformed soldier is arrested in Durham Cathedral. When questioned, 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 and transferred to a rehabilitation home. His doctor James is determined to recover who this man once was. But Adam doesn’t want to remember. Unwilling to relive the trauma of war, Adam has locked his memory away, seemingly for good.
When a newspaper publishes a feature about Adam, three women come forward, each claiming that he is someone she lost in the war. 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 by Caroline Scott

Author Caroline Scott | Published by Simon & Schuster UK on 1st November 2020 | Pages400 (e-book)

I would like to thank #NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK for providing me with an advance copy of #WhenIComeHomeAgain in return for an honest review.

my thoughts

When I Come Home Again is a gently-paced book that packs a searing and lasting punch … all the more so for being based on true events.  It’s a fresh retelling of the devastation of war; of the carnage it wreaks on the soul of a man and on the families left at home. Set in the aftermath of the First World War, this story recounts the turmoil of soldiers returning home – how changed they are, and their struggles to settle back into the families and lives that were once so familiar. Despite being set in the early 1920s, the events within the pages of this incredible book are as relevant to today as they ever were.

“They are all curled in upon themselves, these men, and they talk behind each other’s backs; they all give each other’s secrets away, as if each thinks himself the superior, the saner, man. Thus Adam has learned that Warner is a tailor who is no longer able to thread a needle because his hands shake, that Evans puts his fingers down his throat after every meal, Jones wets the bed at night, Marlow has been sent here by his wife because he doesn’t want to sleep in her bed any longer, and Laffin has taken off his belt and used it on his children. Adam is not sure that he wants to spend more time with these men and their spilling secrets.”

I found the narrative style ethereal and dreamlike, which made it all the more compelling. Its stirring, expressive prose is enchanting to read, and I frequently found myself immersed in the author’s evocative rendering of the countryside in which the book is set. However, the brutality and shock of the war is ever-present in the nightmares and repressed memories of the book’s main characters, occasionally punching its way through the bucolic calm of the beautiful prose. The effect of these two contrary realities is utterly haunting, each silhouetting the other in stark relief.

When I Come Home Again opens on a scene set in Durham Cathedral where a young man in a soldier’s filthy uniform seeks respite from the inclement weather. His sense of disorientation is palpable, heightened by the sensation that only moments ago he was walking, terrified, through a forest in the company of dozens of other men.  Now he is alone, and he’s being called after by a woman he doesn’t know, using a name that isn’t his.  Shortly afterwards, he’s apprehended by the police whose questions serve only to enhance his confusion and provoke their frustration; he has no name, no home, no loved-ones, no birthdate. He is no-man.  They name him Adam Galilee, and refer him to the care of Dr Shepherd to recover at Fellside House.

Adam’s rehabilitation is entrusted to the doctor’s trainee, James Haworth; a man whose own recollection of his time in France is all too vivid, yet just as destructive. Like so many returning soldiers, the toxic aftershocks of war corrode his own family life, and he endeavours to assuage his own feelings of guilt and loss through the single-minded pursuit of an identity – and a home – for Adam.

In the hope of finding Adam’s family, Dr Shepherd places a photograph of Adam in the newspaper, initiating a series of fragile, poignant encounters that serve only to intensify Adam’s sense of displacement.  The walled garden, and the wildness surrounding Fellside House become Adam’s sanctuary and solace during these confusing months; the more vehemently these women insist his place is with them, the more deeply he takes root in the garden and it becomes the one place where he truly feels at home. 

Adam’s affinity with nature is magnified by the breathtaking beauty of the author’s prose. I’ve completely fallen in love with her rendering of colour, sound and texture; the sheer abundance of the seasons … the book is absolutely bursting with life.  The garden and the wood become characters of the book in themselves, such is their immediacy, richness, and pivotal role in Adam’s recovery.

“With the yellow flick of a goldcrest’s wing, the branches stir. The lacquered red rosehips are like Christmas baubles, the sloes blue-bloomed enamel, and Adam thinks: is this here and now not enough? For one day, could they not look instead of talk? The low sun makes a shimmering lace of cobwebs. He walks on and the sky is full of spinning oak leaves. They twist and writhe and flock like starlings.”

. . .

“His fingers touch tree trunks and the lichen is mineral green and copper and gold. It is bronze and blue and grey, and he wishes that he could paint these colours. He crouches on his haunches, takes out his sketchpad and pencil and begins to try to convey its textures on paper. Slowly, carefully, he makes a record, and there is only the noise of his pencil on paper, his steady breath and the chatter of the birds.”

As Adam finds increasing peace and sense of purpose in the gardens, James’s own nightmares leach out into his waking hours, and the two men’s roles become distorted.  There are times when James envies Adam’s lack of recall, but his desire to atone for his own wartime experience warps his judgement.

Adam’s character is written with benign simplicity, and he becomes a blank canvas onto which three women in particular are determined to paint their shared past; one claiming him as her husband, one as her son, and one as her brother.  The intense longing of Celia Dakers, Lucy Vickers, and Anna Mason throws into sharp, heart-rending relief the devastating and tragic toll the war also takes on those left behind. I found myself veering between compassion and distrust as each of these three characters developed. The author has written them with immense sensitivity, and I defy any reader not to be drawn in to the stories they each bring to this book.

There is only one woman, however, that Adam feels a kinship with. He’s been repeatedly drawing her face with striking clarity and familiarity since the day he first arrived at Fellside House, but he can’t recall who she is, nor what their relationship is; only that he likes her face and he misses her.  Before long the walls of his bedroom are smothered with his exquisite sketches of the woman he longs for; a woman Dr Shepherd dismisses as a ‘wood fairy’, and whom James Howarth develops an intractable bias towards.

The final chapters of When I Come Home Again are an unstoppable force, bringing a rounded, all too real, conclusion to the tumultuous emotions of the events and chapters that have gone before. I read most of the book with that butterfly sensation that comes with high emotions, and there were passages that caused my eyes to leak!  Immense care has been taken in the researching and writing of this book, and it’s not one to be rushed, it deserves our full attention and contemplation.

I’ve not read any of Caroline Scott’s books before now (this will change!), so I wasn’t quite prepared for the genuine beauty of her writing. Yes, I’d taken a sneak peek at a few other reviews of this book before I started reading … but I was still taken aback by her talent for creating such beautiful, rich and vivid images with an extremely skilful simplicity of prose. This book evokes a powerful, emotional response; it created a world I yearned to step in to … and yet never to be part of; it elicits an understanding … and yet a sense of disbelief.  This haunting story will stay with me for quite some time, and I will certainly be recommending this book wholeheartedly to all my fellow bookworms, my friends, and every seeker of literary brilliance.

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott

When I Come Home Again will be published on 1st November 2020, and is available from Waterstones in hardback, and from Amazon in hardback, e-book and audiobook formats.

about Caroline

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the First World War, in the challenges faced by the returning soldier, and in the development of tourism and pilgrimage in the former conflict zones. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in south-west France.

Other novels by Caroline Scott include The Photographer of the Lost, and The Poppy Wife.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: When I Come Home Again

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