15 April 2014

Back by Henry Green

For the past several years a large portion of my reading has been inspired by the World War II era.  And a great chunk of that has centered around the lives of women on the Home Front.  After reading the astoundingly excellent (favourite read of 2013) The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel last autumn, centering on literary greats such as Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Graham Greene and Henry Green, I am stretching out a bit.  Time to learn more from the soldier's perspective.

Published in 1946, Back is about Charley Summers and the devastating effects of war and shell shock once those in active duty return home.  Returning to England after being confined as a POW in Germany for three years, and minus one leg, one of the first things Charley does is to visit the grave of his lover, Rose.

'For Rose had died while he was in France, he said over and over under his breath.  She was dead, and he did not hear until he was a prisoner.  She had died and this sort of sad garden was where they had put her without him, and, as he looked about while he leaned on the gate, he felt she must surely have come as a stranger when her time came, that if a person's nature is at all alive after he or she has gone, then she could never have imagined herself here nailed into a box, in total darkness, briar roots pushing down to the red hair of which she had been so proud and fond.'

Emotionally fragile and lacking focus, Charley has lost the one thing he treasured most.  But, Rose was never completely his as she was married to James.  While searching gravestones, Charley hears a man call out to him - it's James accompanied by his six year-old son, Ridley.  The child that Rose was carrying while having an affair with Charley.  

Parentage comes up again when Charley pays a visit to Rose's parents' home.  Mr Grant has been caring for his wife who has never been quite the same since their daughter died and she is exhibiting signs of dementia.  Pulling a card from his pocket, Mr Grant gives Charley the number of his daughter, Nance, conceived during a fling with another woman.  It's all a bit crass but Nance's husband, an RAF pilot, was killed in action and Mr Grant feels that, brought together, they could ease each other's loneliness.  Initially revolted by the idea of another woman he inevitably finds himself at her door and nothing in his wildest imagination could have prepared him for what he sees...a woman bearing Rose's exact features. To say anymore would deprive a future reader of the pleasure of watching a tortured soul rise to the surface of an immense black hole.  

I began this book thinking that perhaps it wasn't quite what I was hoping for; it was far from cosy, there was nary a description of furnishing or surroundings.  But before reaching the midway point, Back was a book that I couldn't put down.  This book is stripped down to the characterization and anything else would have distracted from the main point. Sebastian Faulks put it so eloquently when he wrote about Green's work in an article for The Guardian...

'He seemed to have redrawn the familiar triangle between reader, writer and character, so that you somehow had the impression that you knew his characters better than he himself did. So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them - protective even against the plotting of the author.'

Enough said.


  1. Henry Green is one of my favourite writers, but I haven't read this one. Obviously I should as, like you, I love WW2 novels. Off to see how I can get hold of a copy.

  2. And thanks so much for sharing one of your favourites as it was your post on 'Loving' that hooked me. Hopefully you can find a copy of this one, Harriet, the characters are still rambling around in my head days later. I was lucky and found it in brand new condition at a second-hand shop for $5. All the best!

  3. I need to read my collection of Henry Green - Back is not amongst them but I have a few and I want to try Caught next - which I bought to read before I read The Lovecharm of Bombs...so many good intentions!