Caroline Scott’s fiction debut, 2019’s The Poppy Wife was that rare kind of historical novel, which is at once comfortingly familiar and refreshingly original. She returns to writing about the aftermath of the First World War with When I Come Home Again.
The novel follows a returned solider with amnesia who is sent to convalesce in an English stately home which has been converted into a kind of sanatorium. Dubbed Adam Galilee, his picture is put in the paper in the hopes that his family may come forward and help to solve the mystery of his identity. No one expects so many women to come forward to claim this unknown solider, however. Among them are three likely candidates.
Told in alternating points of view, When I Come Home Again looks through the eyes of Adam, each of the three women who have the best claims, his psychologist James Haworth (himself with some mental scars from fighting in France and losing a dear friend) and James’ wife, Caitlin, who is growing tired of being shut out. While taking this multi-angled approach to the story introduces a layer of nuance to solving the mystery, the sections become more and more fragmented as time goes on.
Part One of the novel is beautifully set up and full of promise; however, as soon as the three women are introduced and the book begins to switch whose eyes the reader is looking through several times mid chapter (sometimes after only a paragraph), it seems clear that more time is needed to truly set up the heartbreaking braid of stories the author intended.
Each of the three women is supposed to be viewed as a very likely possibility to be Adam’s real family, but from the first introduction, it seems clear that we are supposed to follow Anna Mason. The claims of Celia Dakers and Lucy Vickers then feel false and a little two-dimensional, and the portraits of their grief too thin to be all that moving.
Scott’s background as a historian shines through. And, it is clear she has meticulously researched the war and the years that followed. Adam’s story echoes the real stories of many returned servicemen, and at times, this novel had echoes of Anna Hope’s Wake, which also used the motif of the unknown soldier to explore the widespread grief in the inter-war years. The novel has moments of sheer brilliance, and the story of James and Caitlin’s marriage makes a subtle second thread to follow between Adam’s meetings with the women.
Without giving too much away, the mystery at the centre of the novel was compelling enough to keep me reading; but I found the novel’s conclusion wholly unsatisfying. In an attempt to give an ending which was surprising, Scott has succeeded, and her explanation makes sense. But, for those who have read the novel, it will make sense when I say 400 pages is a lot of reading to do for the book to end the way it does. So, if you’re after something like The Poppy Wife, rereading that book is a safer bet than heading to its follow up.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Caroline Scott’s When I Come Home Again is out now, from Simon and Schuster. Get yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.