Review: Back by Henry Green

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books.  This title was originally published in 1946 and is the first book in a series of nine by author Henry Green that NYRB is reissuing.

My Review:
backThe premise of this Green novel is deceptively simple: Charley Summer, recently released from a POW camp in Germany during World War II, is repatriated back into England.  Although Charley suffers from a severed leg for which he must wear a prosthesis, his greatest source of pain is the love that he lost while he was in that German prison camp.  Rose, a woman with whom he was having a passionate love affair, dies from an illness before Charley is sent home.  We first meet Charley when he is trying to find Rose’s grave in an English churchyard and we immediately discover that the plot is much more complicated than we were first led to believe.

Charley is shell-shocked, grief-stricken and disoriented as he tries to settle into a job in London and reconnect with old acquaintances.  He visits Rose’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grant who are also having a hard time dealing with the death of their daughter amidst sirens and bombings.  Mrs. Grant is confused and displays signs of dementia; she doesn’t recognize Charley and thinks that he is her long-lost brother John who died in World War I.  Her confusion and trauma reflects Charley’s own disoriented state of mind.  As Charley is departing from this painful reunion, Mr. Grant gives him the address of a woman named Nance whom Mr. Grant requests that the young man look up while he is in London.

Charley works in the office of a manufacturing firm in London and when they send him a new secretary his emotions become further muddled.  Miss Pitter, a rather plain looking woman, attracts Charley’s attention as he likes to start at her arms.  Green relates to us bits and pieces of what a character is thinking only through dialogue,  which is oftentimes very sparse.  Charley in particular is a man of few words so it is difficult to understand what is really going on inside his head.  But he seems, at times, attracted to Miss Pitter and unsure of how to proceed with her.  Charley’s diffidence and lingering feelings for Rose appear to keep him from acting on a  possible relationship with Miss Pitter.  His short sentences, which are oftentimes canned answers like “There you have it,”  and his inability to stand up for himself whenever someone is taking advantage of him make Charley a character wholly worthy of sympathy.  Green is a master at writing tragic characters who are awash in their sad fates.

To complicate matters even further, Charley pays a visit to Nance who was recommended to him by Mr. Grant.  When Nance opens the door to greet Charley he faints dead away because Nance looks just like his Rose.  The ensuing confusion over the identity of Nance and Rose reads like a bit of a slapstick, “Who’s on First” type of a comedy.  Charley is addressing Nance as if she were Rose, but Nance is completely confused and doesn’t understand what he is talking about.  Charley comes to the conclusion that Rose never really died but instead changed her hair color and moved to London to become a tart.  He spends quite a bit of time thinking of a way to get her to confess that she really is Rose.  These scenes are humorous but also have an underlying hint of sadness because it further highlights Charley’s emotional confusion and turmoil.

One more interesting aspect of Green’s writing that must be mentioned is the story he includes in the middle of the narrative.  It is Rose’s widower, James who sends Charley a magazine story about the 18th century French  court in which a woman mistakes a royal guard for her lost lover.  This is what the Roman poet Catullus would call a libellus, a little book, embedded within the story of Charley.  I felt that the story was only tangentially related to Charley’s predicament;  there is the case of mistaken identity in both narratives but Charley doesn’t appear to learn any type of a lesson after he reads this libellus.  He is too involved in his own issues to gain any type of perspective and it is only very slowly and gradually through love, understanding and patience that Charley begins to untangle his confused mind.

This is a brief but very engrossing novel.  It took me the better part of a week to read and absorb all that was going on in order to write these few words about it.  Green uses the stress of World War II in order to highlight the madness and confusion into which a traumatized mind can so easily descend.  This isn’t a pretty love story but it is certainly one that is more true to real, human life.

About the Author:
h-greenHenry Green (1905–1973) was the pen name of Henry Vincent Yorke. Born near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, England, he was educated at Eton and Oxford and went on to become the managing director of his family’s engineering business, writing novels in his spare time. His first novel, Blindness (1926), was written while he was at Oxford. He married in 1929 and had one son, and during the Second World War served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. Between 1926 and 1952 he wrote nine novels, Blindness, Living, Party Going, Caught, Loving, Back, Concluding, Nothing, and Doting, and a memoir, Pack My Bag.


Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books

18 responses to “Review: Back by Henry Green

  1. 1. The cover looks like a tissue paper collage, and like the book is going to be spring-y and cheerful.
    2. The book actually sounds painful, but very good. Nice review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have *so* many unread Greens on my shelf, and now you’ve made me want to read them all at once! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree with tony for me he is one best writers of his time o did a henry green week in early days of my blog nice see him reissued

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan

    It is a good time for me to read Henry Green as I’m in the post-WWII period in my reading of Powell’s ‘Dance’. In the UK I always see his books in 2nd-hand bookshops so probably won’t get the NYRB versions; besides I don’t like that cover….ugggh!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s only lately that I’ve heard of Henry Green, but he seems to have a lot to offer. Your description of this reminds me of my reading not long ago of Mrs Dalloway, which also uses dense and not always easy to penetrate language to try to get us into a disturbed person’s mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. buriedinprint

    I’ve had the impression that his work would take some time and your experience leads me to believe that my sense of the skinniest books often taking the longest to absorb and digest is true too. But the fact that you’ve enjoyed it enough, despite the difficulty, to desire to read the entire set of reissues…that’s great incentive!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Sounds excellent, Melissa. I’ve yet to read anything by Henry Green, but I know he’s very highly regarded. It’s good to see that NYRB are reissuing these books. As others have said, I’m sure this will prompt a revival of interest in his work.


  8. I haven’t read Green but there’s a read along of this starting next month which I plan to take part in – now further enthused by your obvious enjoyment. Luckily these 9 novels are in print in the UK in jumbo 3-novel editons!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Melissa! I have read one Henry Green novel. Hoping to read more soon. This looks wonderful. I can’t wait to find out what happened to the main character in the end – whom did he fall in love with? Did she return his love? I have to read the book just for that! I loved the story within the story concept. Love the fact that you mentioned Catullus 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. yodcha

    Great to see you reading Henry Green. A couple of years ago I did a read through of all of his novels.

    Liked by 1 person

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