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1001 Book Review: Two Novels by Rebecca West

rebecca west

I had never read any books by noted author Rebecca West. Then in the last month I read two of her books almost back to back for a reading challenge. Rather than post them as two separate reviews, I have decided to combine them here along with a brief blurb about the author.

Dame Rebecca West was a renowned British author, journalist, literary critic, and travel writer. She was born in 1892 and died in 1983. She was incredibly prolific as a writer and her works span many genres. Her books are notable for their feminist leanings and critique of social and political issues. I can also say that the two books  I have read are fairly remarkable in their treatment of psychological issues and themes — being ahead of her time in her treatment of these issues.

 

returnofthesoldierThe Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
First Published: 1918
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 3 stars
Find it/Buy it here (free) :The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier was West’s first novel and at only 112 pages it is a relatively quick read. Set in the time of World War I, it is a novel about memory, love, and the impact of trauma. Chris Baldry is a young, shell-shocked captain who returns home suffering from amnesia. His mind and memory is stuck in a period of his life before he married, when he is in love with a different woman. He has no recollection of his wife, and his memory of his cousin is that of a childhood friend and not the mature woman she is today.  While this book is about Baldry’s memory loss and trauma reaction, it is centered on the reactions of the three women in his life and Baldry himself appears to be a periphery character.

Don’t let my rating of three stars fool persuade you not to read this book. Three stars (for me) is an above average read and I think this was an interesting book. For such a short book, it deals with quite a lot. Overall, I enjoyed the book and was impressed and surprised by the manner in which West delved into issues of trauma and memory loss. The novel presents some psychoanalytic themes way ahead of the time in which they became mainstream. The book was published in 1918 whereas psychoanalysis didn’t become well established until at least 5 years later (although Freud was working on this theories prior the book publication). In addition, West raises some interesting points about social class, and she questions the importance of social class as a limiting factor in human relationships.

Unfortunately, for me the plot was rather silly and as a modern reader with a fair amount of knowledge about theories of trauma, I found storyline flawed and the resolution rather laughable. That said, this is a flaw for the modern reader. We know quite a bit more about trauma and amnesia than we did in 1918, thus West’s plot should not be judged from today’s perspective. What the novel does do is raise interesting questions about what is most important in our life and these questions continue to be relevant to the modern reader. If you could relive the last 15 years over, would you?

Want to try out the book for yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Find it here: The Return of the Soldier

511-ztnflTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy by Rebecca West
First Published:1929
Reviewed by: Jen
Rating: 4 stars
Find it/Buy it here:Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy

Harriet Hume is described as a modern fairy tale (modern meaning 1920s). It’s a good book for those who dislike too much magic in their tales since the primary plot is not centered on the magical elements but rather on psychological and interpersonal elements. Harriet Hume is a beautiful and talented musician. She resembles all that is kind and good. In contrast Arnold Condorex is a man obsessed with moving up in the world at the expense of both his own happiness and that of others. Harriet and Arnold have a tryst and Harriet develops the ability to read Arnold’s mind. Throughout the novel they come together and drive apart at various stages in their lives often with years between each meeting.  With each renewed contact, Arnold becomes more and more unsettled about Harriet’s ability to see into the darkest corners of his mind.

Published many years after her first novel, this book shows how far she her writing and thoughts developed. This book was much more complex and the plot much more interesting than Return of the Soldier. Psychological themes continue to take center stage and West’s exploration of the mind are fascinating. Although the book is a fantasy, the themes are realistic and explore gender roles, relationships, morality, and social issues. Once again, West asks readers to think about what is most important in our own lives. She poses the question of what happens to us when we let ourselves be driven by lust for money, power, and status.

I love how West explores a wide variety of themes and how her female characters are strong and intelligent. As my one critical point, I have to mention that I do find her style of writing to be at times tedious. This is perhaps characteristic of the time in which she wrote, but her style can be overly formal and at times overboard with the level of description (e.g. lots of adjectives). I’m all for descriptive prose, but the descriptions combined with the degree of formality in her style at times made me want to skim over sections. But all in all, I recommend that you try out some of her books.

Want to try it for yourself? Find it here:Harriet Hume: A London Fantasy

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