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?
Based on true events, When I Come Home Again is a deeply moving and powerful story of a nation’s outpouring of grief, and the search for hope in the aftermath of war.
It seems apt to be writing this review on Remembrance Sunday when we pay our respects to those who lost their lives during wartime. When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott, tells of the human costs of warfare, the oft forgotten causalities of a war, that reverberated through the years that followed and still today causes us to stop, consider and remember.
War is not noble, neither is it romantic, it is brutal and for the soldiers and their families, the physical and emotional damage is causes, is never ending. This is the power of Caroline Scots’s writing, she looks at the suffering left behind after the end of World War One, giving the collective grief of a nation a voice through a tale that is poignant, heart-breaking and compelling. In short it is the story of one returned soldier who has no memory of his life before the war and three women whom all believe he could be their husband, or son or brother.
Many people might struggle to believe that these three women could separately believe that ‘Adam’ could be the relative they believe to be still alive! Surely they would know, especially once they have met him? But to understand why this story is not only possible, it is based on a real life event, we need to understand and acknowledge the physiological trauma WW1 had on the nation as a whole. We often deride the notion of life before this event being an age of innocence, life was hard and suffering widespread. Yet before 1914 war had been a distant affair, few knew someone involved, but this time all were affected by events described by psychologist Charles Myers as “the tolerable or controllable limits of horror, fear, anxiety, etc. are overstepped.” PTSD was felt by huge swathes of society, not just by the soldiers who faced the horror of war close up! Families on the home front overcome by grief locked themselves away to avoid having to accept loss on such unimaginable levels. Caroline Scott gives voice to this collective suffering, by giving Adam an aspect of each woman’s lost relative, so it is always plausible that he could be the one they are looking for, a love of nature, of art, of music and gardening. For these women we have to accept that their belief is both real and understandably so. Better to believe Adam is theirs, than be forced to come to terms with the death of not only their own, but so many. Grief often brings with it a form of madness, and where did these women have to turn to, who could help them move from the dark into into the light.
Society was often not kind to those that survived the war, or those who grief made them uncomfortable. Better to shut them away, their shame of damaged husbands, the pain of widows and parents, forced so many into a world of shadows and loss. At one point in When I Come Home Again there is a page, where the writer depicts through simple narrative sentences the reaction of ten different people to the idea that Adam could be theirs. It is simply put, one of the most moving depictions of grief and pain that I have ever read. It simplicity gives voice to their individual grief and this shared desperate delusion caused by unbearable heartache!
Their pain and Adams experiences are often unbearable, my heart felt alternately shattered and then healed by the writing. When you find yourself talking to a book, whispering please no, taking a break because with each page you can’t be sure you can cope with the fate of each character, you know you have read a book of beauty and perfection. You understand that an emotional connection has been made with their lives through the writing and the words that have been given life by a writer of exceptional skill. Caroline Scott’s When I Come Home Again is a moving tale of love, pain and loss and it is surely one of the finest examples of World War One literature of any generation of writers.
About the author
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.