It’s the final day of the blog tour, and at long last I can share my review of the wonderful When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott. Published on 29th October by Simon & Schuster, it’s now available in hardback, audiobook and on all major e-book platforms: the paperback will be available in June 2021. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading copy (provided via netgalley).
When you read as many books as I do, it’s sometimes difficult to remember a book in every little detail – but I’ve had no such issues with Caroline’s debut novel, The Photographer of the Lost. In my review (you’ll find it here) I said that what would most stay with me was how it made me feel – the tears I shed for the lost, for those who mourned them, and for the many whose lives would never be the same again. If, by some chance, this book passed you by, I notice it’s currently just 99p for kindle – go on, download it now, before you read my review of her latest.
But I was so looking forward to this one – and with a sense of timing that usually escapes me, I started to read just after those minutes of silence and reflection on Remembrance Sunday…
They need him to remember. He wants to forget.
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 where 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.
Even if you feel this might not be the book for you, I’d really urge you to read the first chapter – we discover the then-unnamed soldier in Durham Cathedral through one of the most powerful pieces of writing it’s ever been my pleasure to read. The descriptions, the imagery, the emotion with which it’s infused – that unforgettable image of the trapped bird ascending the tower to find escape impossible. You will, of course, want to read on – and the sheer perfection of that opening scene is often repeated, scenes where the small details and the larger scale settings will sear themselves into your memory, ineffably beautiful, overflowing with feeling, nature and its constancy in contrast to the turbulent story that then unfolds.
I could go through this whole book mentioning all the scenes that had a profound impact. One more. Adam – that’s the name he’s given – on the train, watching the changing countryside, the impact of his unfamiliar reflection in the window, while he travels to Westmoreland and his new home at Fell House, where efforts will be made to restore his memory and to reunite him with his family. Opposite him sits James, his doctor, on edge and wringing his hands – a man whose troubling memories are very much present, and which disturb his sleep, affect his relationships, and constantly occupy his mind.
A grainy photo in a newspaper, an attempt – often regretted – to find Adam’s family becomes the catalyst for the hopes of so many people to find their son, their brother, their husband whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown, a faint glimmer of possibility amid the grief and post-war darkness. The story focuses on three women who are convinced Adam is the man they’ve been desperate to find – their different reasons and motivations, their individual conviction that they’ve found the man they’re looking for, set against his polite engagement and his own conviction that there must be something in his lost memories that he doesn’t want to recover. The other focus of the story becomes James, and his complex relationship with Caitlin – his guilt over the traumatic wartime death of her twin brother, his body unrecovered, and the spectre of his presence between them.
That’s the bare bones of the narrative. It’s entirely all-consuming, a story you feel rather than simply read, the characters superbly drawn – emotionally challenging, but with touches of lightness and joy that keep alive the spark of hope and the faint possibility that all will be well. But the writing – my goodness, there are times when it takes your breath away. It’s a book filled with “moments”, sometimes filled with silence, sometimes developed through interactions, every one deeply affecting – and the natural world provides solace, the small details of birds and flowers, the changing seasons, the splashes of vivid colour among the darkness.
I’ve found this review so difficult to write – I can only attempt to capture the book’s essence, because I loved it so very much. And its conclusion – that came far sooner than I wanted it to – is absolutely perfect. This might just be the best book I’ve read this year – totally compelling, profoundly moving, and an extraordinary and unforgettable experience.
About the Author
Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on the landscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in southwest France. The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.