“Have women gotten hold of you, Summers? Is that it?”
In Henry Green’s novel, Back, Charley Summers returns to England after years in a POW camp. It’s a rough homecoming as Charley is minus a leg and Rose, the woman he loved, died in his absence. Rose gave birth to a son while Charley was gone, and he’s half convinced the boy is his. One of the first things Charley, who is damaged and lost, does is visit the cemetery where Rose is buried, but there he bumps into her husband James, and this is the first of many unexpected twists in this ultimately optimistic gentle comedy of errors.
Charley seeks out Rose’s parents, the Grants, but it’s a strange welcome as Mrs. Grant, who appears to suffer from Alzheimer’s initially thinks Charley is her long-dead brother John, but then she realises the visitor isn’t John:
“What are you doing here?” Mrs. Grant demanded, looking at Charley between her fingers and cringing.
“He’s here to take a cup of tea with us, dear,” the husband said. This time he glared. She did not notice because she never took her eyes off Charley.
“I don’t like it,” she muttered.
“I’m very sorry,” Charley Summers said to Mr. Grant.
“Just pay no attention,” this man replied. But it was not as easy as all that. for Mrs. Grant took control by throwing herself back into the sofa to thrust her head into one of its soft corners, from which she began to shriek, muffled by upholstery.
In confidence, Mr. Grant tells Charley he has a “surprise” for him and gives him a London address, telling him to visit the woman who lives there, Nancy Whitmore, a young war widow. Charley isn’t interested in what he suspects to be a matchmaking attempt but circumstances lead him to the woman’s address and there he finds the widow who appears to be Rose’s “living image.” While Nancy denies she’s Rose, Charley isn’t convinced and he decides instead that Nancy/Rose is a prostitute, the ‘widow’ handle is a fiction, that she’s possibly a bigamist who’s run away from her husband and her child, and that it’s his job to ‘save’ her. In reality, it’s Charley who needs to be ‘saved.’
Gradually, the great love story that we first think existed between Rose and Charley vaporizes. What’s left is an image of Rose, full of life, and having a fling with Charley even as she wrapped him around her finger.
Throughout the story, Charley, one of those marvellously unworldy characters, floats through his life either clueless or labouring under misunderstandings. He thinks Rose was the love of his life, he thinks the child she had might be his, he invites his secretary, a woman he’s not attracted to, to the country for a weekend without really meaning to. In contrast, he’s surrounded by people who are savvy and even conniving. Take Rose’s husband, the widowed fat James who runs rings around Charley. Then there’s Charley’s landlady Mrs Frazier, what is she really after? And then there’s the ubiquitous Middlewitch, an indefatigable Lothario whose “love life defied description,” in spite of (or even aided by) a”chromium plated arm.” Middlewitch is turning tales of his war experiences into amorous opportunities, and here he is discoursing about women:
“Extraordinary meeting you like this,” Mr. Middlewitch replied. “No, it’s curiosity,” he went on, “they’re the same as cats, when you scratch with your finger under the newspaper, which have to come and see what you’re about. They’re like this. They know you’ve lived the most unnatural damned life through no fault of your own for years, so want to get under your skin. Because it wasn’t only Yvonne. Practically every girl I know had a go at me. Turned it to very good advantage, too, I did, on more than once occasion, I can tell you.”
The greatness of this novel can be found in its comic timing which mostly resides in Charley’s innocence. Conversations take place without Charley really understanding what is going on, sometimes he’s talking at cross-purposes or else he’s missing a beat. Many of the characters have vague, fuzzy connections (Mrs’ Frazier’s relationship to Mr. Grant, for example) and in Charley’s mind, a great conspiracy emerges, and at one point, he wonders if it’s a case of “white slave trading.”
This is my first, but it won’t be my last, Henry Green novel; I’m currently reading Loving. Back is highly recommended especially if you enjoyed A Month in the Country. While in Back the war is still waging, it’s mostly in the background here (there’s one wonderful scene where the sky is full of planes “drone after drone” flying to Germany) and the emphasis instead is on optimism: healing, surviving and moving on.
“Yes,” he said, “we all of us came back to what we didn’t expect. There’s a number of people dropped out in everyone’s lives. I’m not sure but they do seem a long time over our soup.”