It’s hard for me to get around how good Henry Green was; one starts every novel expecting that this might be the one to let you down, but it doesn’t happen. Back might be seen as a sequel to Caught, the third of a rough trilogy starting with Pack My Bag, his oblique memoir: besides being the books that don’t have a participle for the name (leaving aside the early Blindness), these are books that document Britain during World War II: they show how things were, not how they are. They’re not as funny as his others, of course; Pack My Bag seems to have been written in a stately panic, while Caught comes out of the claustrophobia of the Blitz. Back seems to follow from the haunting final section of Caught, where Richard Roe has been evacuated to the country and is talking obsessively about what happened to him; but Charley Summers, the protagonist of Caught, seems to be the opposite of Roe: he can’t speak at all about what happened in a German prison camp, though one of his legs is missing.
For all its documentary force, Back is very much a novel – more explicitly so than Caught. There is a clearly constructed situation, with two different triads of children and parents. Charley, before leaving for the war, had an affair with Rose, who was married to James; Rose died while Charley was a POW, but she did have a son, named Ridley, that both Charley and James believe to be their own. (The reader is given no hints as to the parentage of this child; we view this through the lens of Charley, but his judgment is shown to be deeply faulty.) And Rose’s father, Mr. Graves, had another daughter, Nancy, by a different mother. After Charley returns, he visits Rose’s parents; Mr. Graves sends him obliquely to visit Nancy, not mentioning who she is. When Charley finally meets her, he thinks that she is a revenant Rose; there, paternity is the source of identity. With Ridley, who he sees for the first time not knowing who he is, he can reach no conclusions about paternity:
He was appalled that the first sight of the boy had meant nothing. Because one of the things he had always hung on to was that blood spoke, or called, to blood. (p. 9)
This incident, at the start of the book, sets the rest of the plot in motion. Having met Nancy through Mr. Graves’s machinations, he confuses her with her half-sister; there seems to be no real resemblance between the two women that any one else notices. This is not the first familial confusion in the book: visiting Rose’s parents, her mother, under strain, imagines Charley to be her dead brother. He chalks it up to the war; others, noting his confusion about Nancy/Rose assume the same of him.
What’s most interesting about Back are the odd relationships engendered by the war: Charley is on friendly behavior with the man he ostensibly cuckolded before the war, and on friendly behavior with Rose’s parents. There is no mention of Charley’s own parents; we might assume that they are dead. But it’s worth noting that Charley doesn’t pursue a relationship with Ridley, whom he believes to be his son; once, he makes a sign to the boy, putting his finger to his lips, but this is their only real communication. It’s the substitute family that becomes his: when Mr. Graves has a stroke, he visits often, and is there when Mr. Graves finally dies. This switch isn’t his alone: Mrs. Graves, who knows of the extramarital liaison that produced Nancy, has Charley bring Nancy to her house when Mr. Graves is dying; Nancy moves in and effectively becomes the couple’s daughter. Nancy does have a mother of her own, of course, with whom, she takes care to note, she was the best of friends; but the mother has been evacuated to the country and doesn’t appear. (Nor does James – the son-in-law of the Graveses and father of their grandchild – appear when his father-in-law is dying.) When Nancy and Charley finally decide to get marred, they plan to live with Mrs. Graves: an odd family of elective affinities.
Everything ends happily, or reasonably so, with a marriage on the way: it’s very much a novel in that way. It’s entertaining to watch Charley to bumble his way through his job, his life, and his relationships with women. But Back is a book about trauma; reading it, I found myself thinking again and again of David Cronenberg’s underrated Spider (based on a novel by Patrick McGrath that I haven’t read), another closely-observed story about a damaged man returning home after years spent away. The viewer of Cronenberg’s film doesn’t know what happened to Clegg in the mental hospital, though it can be assumed to be terrible; nor do we know what happened to Charley Summers in Germany. He does make one tiny admission about what happened to him, two sentences, ten pages from the end of the book: these two sentences don’t describe what happened directly to him, just how he was living, and they hit the reader with the blow of a hammer. We realize just how much has been unsaid in this narrative. Moments like this are scattered through the book: when Mrs. Graves admits to Charley that she knows about her husband’s other daughter, for example, and we realize how complex real world relationships can be. Mr. Graves, stricken dumb by his stroke but still conscious, can only watch the reassembly of a family (his wife, Nancy, Charley) which goes on in front of him on his deathbed. There’s little mention of Charley’s missing leg in the book, though it must cause him a great deal of trouble; most characters seem not to notice it, and even a doctor is surprised to hear that he has a missing leg. All these things have been swept under the rug, necessary, one supposes, for survival during wartime.