Coming Home (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

Gradually I’m re-reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels, most of them for the third or fourth time. It’s fourteen years since I last read ‘Coming Home’, a saga novel with over 1000 pages. Of her four saga-length novels, it’s the one I recalled as liking the least; it takes place before and during World War II and has one or two sordid as well as tragic scenes. But Pilcher is such a good writer that even my least favourite of her novels is well worth re-reading.

The main protagonist is Judith Dunbar, who is fourteen when the story opens. She’s saying goodbye to her best school friend, as she is shortly to move to a boarding school. This is because her mother and little sister Jess are going to join Judith’s father in Colombo, and then moving to Singapore, and back in the 1930s it wasn’t considered appropriate to have British teenagers living in Asian cultures. Judith is reasonably calm about it all; indeed, she has more common sense and organisational ability than her somewhat flighty mother…

Judith is to spend her holidays with her Aunt Louise; she’s quite fond of her, but doesn’t much like her house. She would prefer to live with her Aunt Biddy and Uncle Bob, but they too are shortly to move and Louise has much more space.

The first chapters cover Judith’s days as she and her mother buy school uniform, and talk about the future, and pack up their rental house, deciding what’s to go into storage. In the clothing store, Medway, they spot another family buying uniform for the same school, and Judith feels a spark of kinship for Loveday, the girl being kitted out. However she doesn’t really get to know Loveday until a few weeks into the term…

It’s not a school story, although inevitably there are some scenes at the school, which boasts a surprisingly sympathetic headmistress. Loveday is spontaneous and vivacious, and invites Judith to spend weekends at her family home, Nancherrow.

Most of the action in the early part of the book takes place at this large, friendly and bohemian home, where visitors come and go and everyone is made welcome. Judith is gradually adopted into the family, falling a little in love with Loveday’s brother. The action skips forwards from time to time, so we don’t see every weekend or holiday, and some of the gaps are cleverly filled in with letters: Judith writes weekly to her parents.

The plan is that Judith will spend a year with her parents in Singapore after she leaves her boarding school, and then go to university. However, war breaks out, and the second part of the book takes place in the war years, a period with which the author would have been quite familiar, as she was born in 1924. Young men go off to war, women start war work, rationing hits everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest. Letters go astray, telegrams usually bring bad news, and everyone carries gas masks and worries about air raids.

There’s quite a lot of description in this novel, and I skimmed some of it; I’m no good at visualising anyway, and find descriptive passages quite hard going. I skimmed some of the passages about naval and other events in the war, too; I got the general gist, but I’m no history buff, and was more interested in the people - in particular Judith. While most of the book is written from her perspective, there are some sections from other people’s viewpoints, woven in seamlessly to cover scenes where Judith isn’t present.

Rosamunde Pilcher has a wonderful gift for characterisation. Even though Judith has no particular special features, she felt real to me throughout, and I could both sympathise with her and understand her, while thankful not to be in her shoes most of the time. There are quite a few characters introduced in the early part of the book, but I had no trouble remembering who was whom. Some of the scenes are quite poignant, some shocking even though I remembered the main plot points.

Once I had read a few chapters it was difficult to put down, but it still took me a week to finish as it’s a long and ultimately very satisfying book. As well as being excellent war-years social history, and a ‘coming of age’ novel about Judith, it gently looks at other themes: of class consciousness, and privilege, and love in many facets.

Highly recommended for adults and older teens.  First published in 1995, this novel has remained almost constantly in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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