In The Soldier’s Wife, Joanna Trollope revisits the themes that first surfaced in The Rectors Wife written around twenty years ago (primarily the difficulties of being married to a man with a ‘calling’). The two book titles point out perfectly the similarities and differences between these current book-ends of Trollope’s writing career.
Alexa is the soldier’s wife, a young widowed mother who falls in love with an army career man. She lives with her twin daughters in the supportive yet claustrophobic surrounds of the army village, while her older daughter is away at boarding school. As an almost army-wife myself, I can relate to the camaraderie of the wives and the loyalty of the men to their fellow soldiers, their units and their professions. The close confines of the small towns that spring up around the central hub of the barracks carry unique experiences; both good and bad. My experiences were forged in Australia and, thankfully, in peace-time but I understand the challenges.
Initially, I sympathised greatly with Alexa. Even after making allowances for her husband’s defence of his country and the enormous responsibility he has as a commanding officer, I found it difficult to conclude that he is anything less than self-centred and self-absorbed when it comes to his family (the way he deals with subordinates and comrades is a different story altogether). Alexa is an intelligent woman who’s forsaken her own career to become ‘The Soldiers Wife’ and she has either merged her needs and wants with her husband’s or has buried them so deeply that even she forgets [for a time] what they are.
However, as the story progressed, my sympathy toward Alexa waned due mainly to her treatment of her daughter (Dan’s stepdaughter). Poor Isabel. She struggles to even be seen, let alone listened to. Her mother – an educated and otherwise capable woman – proves completely ineffectual at dealing with her daughter’s problems and Isabel’s voice remains unheard.
This novel is about more than the struggle of the nurturer and home-keeper in the family. It is as much about the pressures facing returning soldiers as they attempt to fit back into their family and into some sort of ‘normal’ life after the extremes of war. Trollope drives home effectively the inability of these servicemen to completely ‘return’ (and I use the masculine term purely because this is a book about returning male soldiers). These men leave parts of themselves behind (sometimes literally) in the far-flung battle grounds. An even greater part remains with their fellow soldiers and – in the case of Alexa’s husband Dan – their subordinates for whom they feel enormous responsibility.
With an almost journalistic fanaticism, Trollope seems determined to tell all sides of the story – the soldier, the wife, the senior officers, the wives of fellow soldiers – and for the most part she succeeds, capturing the relationship dynamics perfectly.
Dan’s tour of duty in Afghanistan with the British Army brings currency and a sense of immediacy to this novel but Trollope resists the urge to wander into the Big Picture, concentrating instead on the family tableau.
I usually like to quote from the books I review but my copy of The Soldier’s Wife is an uncorrected bound proof which comes with a warning to ‘check any quotations or attributions against the final published copy of the book’, so I will resist the urge. Suffice to say that the author knows her audience and fans will be pleased that she continues to deliver with panache.
Incidentally, Trollope’s The Soldier’s Wife is not to be confused with Margaret Leroy’s novel which shares the same title in the US but is sold as ‘The Collaborator’ in the UK.
Trollope, Joanna. The Soldier’s Wife. Doubleday, London, 2012.
ISBNs: 9780385618038(hb) 9780385618045(tpb)
Uncorrected Bound Proof supplied by Random House.