It is 1920 and Laurence Bartram has survived the war only to be plagued with grief, over the death of his wife and newborn son. It is then that he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of an old school friend, which pulls him out of his reclusive state. Mary’s brother, John Emmett, has killed himself after escaping from the asylum where he was being treated for shell shock, and she questions why he survived the war only to end his own life.

Laurence begins to delve into the life of John Emmett to try and discover the reasoning behind his supposed suicide, forcing himself to revisit the darkest aspects of the war. Elizabeth Speller’s captivating debut novel explores the aftermath of the events that led to John’s suicide and the poisonous effect they had on those present and those left at home. Despite the seemingly simple surface, the plot underneath is a tangled web of mystery, feuds and deceit.

…the vivid evocation of the harsh and shocking realities of war…

Throughout the novel, fragments of the story, and of Emmett’s life, slowly knit together. However, it isn’t only his story we are told. Laurence says in the novel that John’s “story was tied up with other stories and everything became more complicated.” This statement encapsulates the feeling of Speller’s novel. As Laurence digs deeper more stories are revealed and mysteries unearthed, leading to more compelling questions. This can make the novel confusing at times, with additional characters being continuously introduced. However, at the end of the novel, the resolution emerges after an intelligently complex plot.

Speller’s greatest strength is her ability to powerfully evoke the time, place and emotions surrounding the era in which the novel is set. Together with her historical knowledge, this enables the vivid evocation of the harsh and shocking realities of war, with the subsequent emotions depicted in intricate detail and depth. The reader is not simply a spectator outside the story, but nestled inside, watching events unfold.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is a rich, moving and intriguing novel, providing a refreshing change in the midst of the saturated World War I theme.

The Return of Captain John Emmett is published by Virago Press and available for £7.99.

4½ Stars 

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Speller


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