The second installment of a trilogy set in a small industrial town in the north of England, about a young WWII vet’s struggle to adjust to peacetime routine.
In the award-winning Soldier’s Return (2002), Bragg introduced Sam Richardson, a working-class lad from Wigton who had slogged with the army through the jungles of Burma and, after six years, managed to make it home alive. Happily reunited with his wife Ellen and his eight-year-old son Joe, Sam soon realized that the war might have ended but it still cast a long shadow over the whole of Britain in the form of shortages, poverty, and unemployment. Although he was strongly tempted to emigrate to Australia, Sam stayed on for the sake of Ellen (who refused to consider the move) and took a job at the local factory. Intelligent and thoughtful, Sam had wanted to be a schoolteacher but lacked the necessary training, and he chafed at the mind-numbing routine of life on the assembly line. When the owners reneged on a promised wage increase, Sam tried unsuccessfully to convince his mates to call a strike. Disheartened, he left the factory and bought a rundown pub in order to be his own boss. Bragg manages to evoke well the strange, schizophrenic atmosphere of postwar Britain—a time that was at once unremittingly grim and impossibly hopeful for the future—in the person of Sam, who was quiet and dutiful in the classic English style but full of secret enthusiasm and ambitions beneath the surface. As the story progresses, the focus shifts from father to son, and the climax narrows in on now-adolescent Joe’s impending choice of whether to take a good job or stay on in school.
Like its predecessor, a marvelous and very rich tale, all the more powerful for its quiet tone and restrained narration.