By Elizabeth Speller; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman
When Mary Emmett asks Laurence Bartram to find out why her brother John would kill himself after surviving the Great War, Laurence agrees.
He’s inspired by the memory of John’s invitation to their home in a dark time in Laurence’s school days.
Laurence himself returned from the war with invisible scars. While he fought in the trenches, his wife and son died in childbirth at home.
“The war had changed things; for him life before 1914 was a closed world he could never reach back and touch.”
For Emmett, the war never ended. He developed a psychosomatic paralysis of his right arm. He was so depressed his family put him in a care facility. Then, as he seemed to be getting better, he shot himself.
Only a photograph of a group of soldiers and three bequests offer any clues. One bequest was to a Capt. William Bolitho, who had lost his legs in the war. A second was for a Monsieur Meurice, whose home in France was destroyed in the war. The third was to a mysterious Mrs. Gwen Lovell.
Working to identify the men in the photograph, Laurence discovers that at least three (in addition to Emmet) have died. Is someone killing them? And why?
This book takes an unusual view of the Great War. Focusing on its closing days, when untrained soldiers and officers were thrown into front line horrors, author Elizabeth Speller shows the extreme punishment exacted on men who refused orders to go into suicidal battles.
For survivors, the war often didn’t end on the battlefield. Shell shock (what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder) didn’t disappear when the armistice was declared. At home, the grieving, the wounded, the maimed and the living dead struggle with their losses.
Ultimately, Laurence unravels Emmett’s final days. His meetings with Emmett’s sister and conversations about her brother, give Laurence hope of a new life and new love. But he soon learns that, like the men who served in battle, Mary and other women are also wounded and unlikely to leave the war behind.
This is an intriguing mystery, an eye-opening picture of World War I and a tragic love story.
THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN JOHN EMMETT (2011) is the first of a series, and was followed by THE STRANGE FATE OF KITTY EASTON (2012)
If you enjoy novels about World War I, you may also enjoy THE POPPY WIFE.
The Author: Elizabeth Speller
Elizabeth Speller is a writer, teacher, journalist and poet.
Born in Oxford, she was educated in London and at Cambridge University, where she read classics and took a post-graduate degree in ancient history. She lived in Italy and eventually settled in Cirencester.
Her most recent book is THE FIRST OF JULY (published in the United Kingdom as AT BREAK OF DAY (2021). She also wrote a memoir, THE SUNLIGHT ON THE GARDEN: A FAMILY IN LOVE WAR AND MADNESS (2012) and a nonfiction work, FOLLOWING HADRIAN (2002).
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