Prolific author Joanna Trollope is an OBE, famous for her historical fiction, family dramas, and an excellent understanding of human nature and frailties. In The Soldier’s Wife, it’s all about the issues of dealing with “the difficulty of being married to someone else’s committed calling” as it says on the book jacket.
Protagonist Alexa Riley, in her second marriage — to major Dan Riley — does everything in her husband’s absence, raising their toddler twins and her teenage daughter, plus all the household stuff, in their army village accommodation. Yet, when Dan returns for a long-awaited break from duty in Afghanistan, he seems emotionally distant and unable to connect to them and to family life. For Alexa, a strong, beautiful and dignified woman, it’s a double dilemma. She seems to have found love with a measure of stability for the first time in her life, yet has forsaken her own needs and a career to be a good wife to Dan, for what it seems are little returns.
Every time he comes home, there is a period of readjustment they all have to endure, and Alexa and the kids are prepared, but never completely so. And this time, Dan never seems to snap out of his ‘absent’ mode, retreating into himself and avoiding conversations or any serious discussion about what he’s going through, or what has taken place at home while he was away.
The reader will be relieved to ‘escape’ the impasse through the well etched other characters in the story. Jack Dearlove, Alexa’s best friend and constant sound board, is as dependable and caring as his name suggests. Then there are Dan’s father and grandfather — ex- military men themselves — who are the most winning. Alexa turns to them for support, and enamoured by their daughter-in-law, they try to step in and intervene, while the narrative hints at their own failures as fathers and husbands. Alexa and Dan’s neighbours, the other army WAGs, reflect her own dilemma or are rebelliously assertive or staunchly practical about their place as soldiers’ bitter halves. Even the Rileys’ pet Labrador isn’t spared Dan’s distant callousness; and Alexa, mirroring Dan’s behaviour, neglects her daughter Isabel, who is unhappy at boarding school.
Dan, meanwhile, is experiencing the “band of brothers” and “in the zone” syndromes, pining for fellow soldiers and spending time at the base instead of life with his family. He is so overwhelmed and preoccupied with the killings, injuries and breakdowns witnessed in battle, that he has no more reserves left to deal with what understandably seems his own family’s trivial, everyday problems. Things come to a head when the stress and other situations start threatening their marriage.
It’s obvious Trollope cares deeply for her characters, her empathy for their problems and themselves making for an extraordinary narrative out of ordinary, day-to-day emotions. And it seems she has thoroughly researched both life in the army, and what it entails for the loved ones of personnel.
Over and above the struggles of the women who stay back home, Trollope better captures the dilemmas of the men who never really ‘return’, scarred from within, having left parts of themselves behind on the battlegrounds, never sure about whether they owe more to their fellow soldiers and their country, or to longing, lonely hearts back home.
If there is a moral to this tale, it is this: life is no different from the battleground. You just evaluate the situation and your opposition (problems and difficulties), assume the best position and fight for what you think is best for you.