Monday 19 March 2018

Epic family saga driven by love in the shadow of war

The Dust That Falls From Dreams, Louis de Bernieres, Harville Secker, €17.99

Masterpiece: Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres has a sacred place in the mind of fans
Masterpiece: Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres has a sacred place in the mind of fans

Emily Hourican

Louis de Bernieres' fourth novel, Captain Corelli's Mandolin occupies a sacred place in the minds of adoring fans. Nothing he has done since has challenged the standing of that book, although his latest, The Dust That Falls From Dreams, seems likely to try.

This is an epic family saga, taking in some 25 years, including those of the First World War, and a host of characters, all connected to each other, by blood, proximity or desire. It has a hint of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles, but truncated. The Dust That Falls is a relatively crisp, even curt epic, with the action taking place in staccato bursts, interspersed with episodes of whimsy, or long instructive passages about fighter planes and golf balls, told in a variety of ways, through letters, diaries, third and first-person-narratives, poems and Biblical passages.

The book opens in 1902 with a celebration of the new age of Edwardianism; a garden party held by Mr Hamilton McCosh, entrepreneur and self-made man, married to an eccentric snob who is grateful for the fact that he rescued her from spinsterhood - she had been engaged to a lord, who, in a nod to Jane Eyre, turned out to be already married - but annoyed that he does not rise to more exalted circles. However, he is rich, and genial, and they have four daughters, the lovely Rosie; brave, athletic Christabel; kind, wise Ottilie, and the unconventional, malapropic Sophie.

On either side live families with boys. Daniel and Archie, half-French, on one side, and the American Pendennises, with three young sons, Ashbridge, Albert and Sidney, on the other. At the garden party, Ashbridge declares his love for 10-year-old Rosie and gives her a brass curtain ring. Daniel and Archie are both in love with her too, while Ottilie is in love with Archie. Through it all, the family dog, Bouncer, romps; conduit for all the things middle-class Edwardians cannot say to each other.

Fast-forward 12 years, "years that would forever be remembered as golden", and the First World War looms. Rosie and Ash are properly engaged now, in love with each other in an intense, idealistic way, promising to be the keepers of each other's souls. All the young men enlist in the heady, early days of war, and of course not all return. This act - the slaughter of so many, the presence of grief and ghosts in the lives of an entire nation - is what both propels the action and gives it context.

The scenes set at the Western Front are the book's best. The descriptions of mud and rats and dead, bloated horses; the digging of latrines and the camaraderie of sharing hampers from home; the sound of a German soldier singing Brahms's Lullaby; the instructions: "Tell her I died well. Even if I died screaming with my legs blown off", are poignant and tragic; a horror that never dims.

Meanwhile, back home the girls are chaffing against the forced inactivity and superficiality of their lives. Surrounded by death and news of death, where every woman they meet is grieving a lost son, husband, sweetheart, they defy their mother and find jobs for themselves. De Bernieres has a natural sympathy with the lot of women - the lack of power and purpose, the secondary roles of wife and mother, the ways in which such a life might make anyone of spirit tip over into cruelty and eccentricity - so that even though he makes Rosie a rather chilly saint, and Sophie almost unbearably good and endearing in the way that Dickens's good characters are so good they become sickly, he also manages to convey, and well, the lack of opportunity and the frustrations of being on the cusp of a changing world. During the course of the novel, women get the vote, but they still can't live any kind of independent life. This becomes most of a challenge for Christabel, who falls in love where she shouldn't, and Ottilie who is wise and kind, but not beautiful.

The story is driven by love - who loves whom, and who is loved in return - with plenty of discourses on religion, specifically the role of faith in the face of senseless slaughter, and death. All the characters are haunted to some degree by those lost in the war, and the image of a nation stumbling forward in grief is very convincing. Less so are some of the conversations between characters, which can be glib and brittle, a little like Waugh, but without his sharp depths.

Plot lines rear up and are then discarded, and some characters get handed grand attributes - wisdom, insight, eccentricity - without really earning them through their actions. But overall this is an appealing, well-intentioned novel.

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