The Homecoming by Anna Enquist

Amazon Crossing| 1 April 2022| Print length 383 pages| 4*

I’ve read one book by Anna Enquist, a Leap, which is a collection of short stories, so when I saw The Homecoming was one of the Amazon First Reads for March this year I decided that was the one for me. It was first published in 2005 in Dutch and this English edition was translated by Eileen J Stevens in 2022.

There’s a lot written about Captain James Cook, the 18th century explorer, but I’d never come across anything about his wife, Elizabeth, before. The story is told from Elizabeth’s perspective and begins as she is at home in Mile End in London, preparing for James’s return home after his Second Voyage round the world in the ships Resolution and Adventure in 1775. This book is historical fiction, based on historical facts, although as the author writes in her Afterword: ‘the story is woven between the cracks of those verifiable cracks.’

So because there is little known about Elizabeth’s life, much of her story is the result of the author’s imagination and conjecture, but using the dates of births and deaths, of James’s departures and homecomings, and of letters and meeting. What is fact, is that she had six children – five sons and one daughter – and she outlived all of them. It is a heart-wrenching story as Elizabeth copes at home alone without her husband, a story of daily, domestic life at the end of the 18th century. She is a strong and resourceful woman who loves her husband, coping whilst desperately hoping he will not leave for a third voyage.

I was immediately drawn into the story and thoroughly enjoyed it, apart from the ending, which did spoil it somewhat. I can’t explain what happens at the end without giving away too much, except to say that it is Anna Enquist’s version of Cook’s death on Hawai’i as she imagines what was going on in his head as the days drew on towards the final tragedy – and it is strange, very strange.

Reading The Homecoming has made me want to know more about the Cook family and James’s life in particular. So, I was pleased to see there is a bibliography at the end of the book. And I also found there is another novel about Elizabeth: Mrs Cook: the Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife by Marele Day.

Other sources:

The Captain Cook Society

The Royal Naval Museum Information sheet on James Cook and a reading list

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: The Homecoming by Anna Enquist

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring The Homecoming by Anna Enquist, to be published on 1 April 2022. This is my Amazon First Reads choice this month – where you can choose to download a free e-book from a choice of eight early release titles if you subscribe to Amazon Prime.

The Book Begins:

He’ll expect an empty table when he comes home, she thought. He’ll be lugging chests and sacks into the house, filled with journals, sketches and maps.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

Page 56:

How could he, from one minute to the next, become a father again, or a husband? In the brief span of time between dusk and darkness, there was no way to catch up on three years. They would have to take a leap of faith and trust that, in the coming weeks and months, they could fill in the gaps.

I was beginning to think I wouldn’t choose an Amazon First Reads book this month, until I came to the Literary Historical Fiction choice (I notice that this is a different choice from the US selection). I chose this book because I like historical fiction and this one is about Elizabeth Cook, the wife of the eighteenth-century explorer, Captain James Cook. I also chose it because it’s by Anna Enquist, (the pen name of one of the more popular authors in the Netherlands, Christa Widlund-Broer.) She is a musician, and a psychoanalyst as well as a poet and novelist, and I have read one of her books before, a Leap, a very short book (80 pages) made up of six dramatic monologues. Overall they are sad, even tragic stories and I liked her style of writing, which is clear and brings the people and places to life. 

I started to read The Homecoming as soon as I downloaded it and so far I am enjoying it very much.

Synopsis:

After twelve years of marriage to English explorer James Cook, Elizabeth has yet to spend an entire year with her husband. In their house by the Thames, she moves to the rhythms of her life as a society wife, but there is so much more to her than meets the eye. She has the fortitude to manage the house and garden, raise their children, and face unbearable sorrow by herself—in fact, she is sometimes in thrall to her own independence.

As she prepares for another homecoming, Elizabeth looks forward to James’s triumphant return and the work she will undertake reading and editing his voluminous journals. But will the private life she’s been leading in his absence distract her from her role in aid of her husband’s grand ambitions? Can James find the compassion to support her as their family faces unimaginable loss, or must she endure life alone as he sails off toward another adventure?

An intimate and sharply observed novel, The Homecoming is as revelatory as James Cook’s exploration of distant frontiers and as richly rewarding as Elizabeth’s love for her family. With courage and strength, through recollection and imagination, author Anna Enquist brilliantly narrates Elizabeth’s compelling record of her life, painting a psychological portrait of an independent woman ahead of her time and closely acquainted with history.