March Superlatives

I read six books in March–only half as many as last month–but this was partly because of a heavy work schedule, and partly because I read several long books that took a lot of time but will stay in my head for even longer. Here are this month’s Superlatives: as previously advertised, like your high school “most likely to succeed” categories, but less shit.

all around best: Joint honors go to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Hall’s novel is a thoughtful, beautiful, fiercely intelligent exploration of generation, family ties and the connections between humans and the environment we live in. She is the sophisticated, sexy writer I wish I could be. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel is a peerless evocation of pre-WWII England, told through the life stories of a large and typically idiosyncratic upper-middle-class family. Links above are to my reviews of both.

creepiest: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer, the conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy. Better than the second if not quite as good as the first, Acceptance is about learning to die, or learning to change (isn’t it much the same?), as the biologist and Control unravel the secrets of Area X. The three need to be read together, but I thought Acceptance a satisfying ending, despite the many coyly unanswered questions.

The Florida coastline, where the Southern Reach trilogy is set

most oddly anticlimactic: I like this category so much that I’m resurrecting it from February’s Superlatives post. This month, it was Laline Paull’s The Bees which left me cold and bewildered. Why are people so keen on this book? The writing is no more than competent, the structure is chaotic, the plot is guessable from the early pages. It’s not terrible, but why it’s on the Baileys long list and The Wolf Border isn’t is one of those things I’ll never, ever understand, like people who vote Republican.

most due a renaissance a la John Williams’s StonerWithout a doubt, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond. Since it’s published by NYRB, the original publishers of Stoner, it seems possible that such a renaissance could happen again. Schwarz-Bart’s dreamy prose swaddles the story of a Guadeloupean woman and her struggles in life and love. It’s a gorgeous book, and offers no easy platitudes.

most intense: In every way, David van Reybrouck’s doorstop volume Congo: the Epic History of a People. The story he tells, from remote beginnings to Leopold’s annexation of the territory as his personal property to formal colonization by the state of Belgium, through to the granting of independence, the assassinations and incompetence that followed as a consequence of being woefully underprepared, and the culpable negligence of the US, EU and UN in coping with Congolese problems, are all covered in novelistic prose. Some of van Reybrouck’s assertions are, according to my uncle, who works in the now-DRC, “tendentious”, and he glosses over many of the European interventions or lack thereof, clearly uncomfortable apportioning blame. For an overview, though, it’s very informative. I plan to read Blood River and King Leopold’s Ghost as soon as I can, to get a more nuanced (and hopefully less “official”) picture.

Congo

up next: The Moon and Sixpence (I’ve been saying this for months) for the Classics Club, and Deep Lane, a new poetry collection by Mark Doty, to review in Quadrapheme. It has the most elegant cover I’ve seen for a long time, even with fuzzy resolution:

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The Bridge of Beyond, by Simone Schwarz-Bart

“Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

New York Review Books is an imprint I’ve never really gotten to grips with. They publish or republish what you might call “forgotten classics”, things that perhaps never got their moment in the sun, or little cult gems. JL Carr’s A Month In the Country is published by them, for instance, as is Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. They also produce a lot of translated literature, towards which I am frequently ambivalent; even my first Haruki Murakami inspired feelings of “is this him or his translator?” which I can’t quite resolve. The Bridge of Beyond, by Simone Schwarz-Bart, ticks almost all of these boxes: originally published in French in the 1970s, it is concerned with the lives of several generations of women of the Lougandor family, on the island of Guadeloupe, and of how they face tribulation, find happiness, and endure. The concept is appealing, but I might never have heard of it or picked it up without this review from Laura at Reading In Bed (link to be posted when I’m using a different computer; this one won’t let me access it…). I asked for The Bridge of Beyond on the strength of that review alone–a testament to the power of recommendation, kids!–and I am so glad that I did.

One of the things that Laura mentioned in her review was that she wasn’t quite sure how to engage with the novel’s exploration of race, before realizing that she didn’t have to; you can choose what to leave in or out of any review. It’s a good point to make, but I think it also bears a corollary: it’s not easy to write on the “racial themes” of Schwarz-Bart’s novel because they’re very subtly conveyed, and they’re subtly conveyed because the book doesn’t make itself all about white people. It’s a book about black women, interacting within black communities, and written by a black woman, and so the sort of racial interactions that we look to see in “ethnic” or “diverse” books (see, e.g. The Help or Black Boy or Beloved, both of which are much better books than The Help in every way) aren’t foregrounded. This isn’t a book about “race” because it’s not a book about black people coexisting with white people, learning to make concessions to them and being treated badly. It’s a book about black people living amongst black people, which makes the whole idea of it being “about race” sort of irrelevant. (Which is not to say that there are no white people in the novel, or that their actions don’t have a huge impact on the lives of the black Guadeloupeans. The narrator, Telumee, works for a singularly narrow-minded white woman as a house maid, and later, her second husband Amboise takes part in a demonstration against working conditions at a sugarcane factory–owned by whites, of course–which is suppressed with simple and absolute brutality. What I mean is that the white people aren’t the point of the story, which is incredibly refreshing.)

The book is divided into two parts, of unequal length. The first part, by far the shortest, is entitled “The Story of My People.” It runs through the potted biographies of Telumee’s matriarchal forebears: from her great-grandmother, Minerva, a freed slave, descends Toussine, who becomes known as Queen Without A Name and who bears three daughters, of whom the third is Telumee’s biological mother, Mama Victory. Mama Victory falls victim, unfortunately, to the blandishments of a thoroughly unscrupulous man (not Telumee’s father), and leaves her daughter in the hands of Toussine, Queen Without A Name, who by now lives several hours away in the village of Fond-Zombi. As Telumee’s childhood goes on, she makes friends with Elie, the boy whose grandfather Old Abel runs the village store; the beginnings of a romance are visible from miles away.

One of the most wonderful things about the book is its prose. Jamaica Kincaid describes it in her introduction as “incantatory” and that’s exactly how it feels, that rhythmic sway of syllables like a folk song, like Bible verses recited, like a chant at night. Here is Telumee on the subject of growing up:

All rivers, even the most dazzling, those that catch the sun in their streams, all rivers go down to and are drowned in the sea. And life awaits man as the sea awaits the river. You can make meander after meander, twist, turn, seep into the earth–your meanders are your own affair. But life is there, patient, without beginning or end, waiting for you, like the ocean…And while school was leading us toward the light, up there on the hills of Fond-Zombi, the waters were intersecting, jostling, foaming, the rivers were changing their courses, overflowing, drying up, going down as best they could to be drowned in the sea.

There’s a sense, too, of the proverbial, not in a sententious way but in a manner undeniable: the repeated truths that the past has proved. They can be melancholy–as the header quote to this post suggests–but they can be full of joy, too:

I laughed to myself, remembering that when a woman loves a man she sees a field and says it’s a mule. There’s air, water, sky, and the earth we walk on–and there’s love. That’s what keeps us alive. And if a man doesn’t give you a belly full of food but gives you a heart full of love, that’s enough to live on. That’s what I’d always heard people saying around me, and that’s what I believed.

That kind of conviction leaves you vulnerable, though, and Telumee isn’t always so blithe. Her husband, Elie, slowly turns sour; bad harvests and lack of money see him devolving into a drunkard, then a wife-beater and (by inference) a rapist. Although Telumee is comforted by Queen Without A Name, no one else seems to think it’s any of their business, and her constant bruises are met with sympathy but no concrete assistance on the part of her fellow villagers. Schwarz-Bart doesn’t dwell on any of this. There’s a certain tranquility to the book that cannot be shaken by mere events. If I say that Telumee and the narration itself are both passive, it will sound as though they’re soulless, lifeless automatons; that’s not what I mean at all, but I do want to gesture towards that passivity. Perhaps it’s more like acceptance, although that doesn’t mean that Telumee ever believes she deserves her ill-treatment. She simply loves her husband, is hurt by him, and waits for things to change. It’s unjust, but it has the air of truth about it: this is, by and large, how we respond to the injuries inflicted upon us by the people we love.

Eventually, the situation does change for Telumee: she’s forced out of her own home by her husband’s acquisition of a new wife. (Or concubine. The novel is a little unclear on how adult relationships are formalized in this community, but given the history of slavery in Guadeloupe and the general failure of slaveholders to recognize marriages between members of the black population, “marriage” in this context appears to mean a publicly recognized state of affairs between two cohabiting adults.) What this means for Telumee is that when her husband turns up with another woman and tells her to get out, she hasn’t got much in the way of legal recourse. Not that she wants to fight it, at this point; she returns to Queen Without A Name, and slowly, very slowly, begins to rejoin the land of the living. Her second marriage to an older man, Amboise–her first husband’s mentor, in fact–is much happier. There is a sort of gentle sensuality to the descriptions of their daily life together which is infectious:

At the end of the afternoon, when the animals had been brought in, Amboise would strip off his thick, rough, ragged clothes, the color of our soil, fold them up, and put them on the dome-shaped top of a young orange tree. Then, naked in the light of the setting sun, he waited for me. And that was another hour I loved, for his muscles at rest hoped for me, and I came and poured over him the citronella-scented water I always remembered to put to warm in the sun in the morning. The water flowed over his body with a murmur, its scent saturating the air as if it were sap, while Amboise splashed about making long spurts of water that soaked and drenched and carried me away.

This relationship, too, is cut short, and Telumee grieves, but she is not lost. She never again loses interest in life. Her friendship with the elderly hedgewitch Ma Cia keeps her afloat when her grandmother dies, and the strength of the little community where she lives with Amboise supports her in her widowhood. That is the overwhelming impression of the book, in fact: a sense of support and endurance. It’s not “poverty porn” in the sense of gleefully exhibiting a parade of one individual’s misfortunes; it’s an even-tempered, sometimes wistful account of the absolute triumphs and absolute despairs of a perfectly ordinary Guadeloupean woman. To say that The Bridge of Beyond valorizes “strong women” would be to stereotype it; it’s much braver and more unusual than that. What it does is demonstrate the human capacity not merely to endure, but to make choices about our reactions to things we can’t control. At the very end of the book, Telumee meets her abusive former husband, Elie, once more. I shan’t tell you what she does; I shall only leave you with her final words: “Sun risen, sun set, the days slip past and the sand blown by the wind will engulf my boat. But I shall die here, where I am, standing in my little garden. What happiness!”

Les Saintes

Village of Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews. Here’s a taster for my latest, of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border:

In The Wolf Border (Faber, March 2015) Hall returns to the Cumbrian setting that has served her writing so well in the past. The fictional Earl of Annerdale (a title modeled, clearly, on the real-life Earls of Lonsdale) has pledged his money and substantial private land to be the testing ground for reintroducing grey wolves to the English wilderness. He wants to hire Rachel Caine–a wildlife biologist, Cumbrian by birth, who fled Britain at the earliest opportunity for the vast anonymity of the Chief Joseph Reservation in Idaho–to manage the project. Rachel is, at first, reluctant: she interviews, but rejects the Earl’s offer. Several months later, with the death of her demanding and unconventional mother, she reconsiders and accepts, and the rest of the novel covers her attempts to manage the wolves’ best interests while also navigating the Earl’s personal agenda and her relationship with her own estranged brother.

I absolutely loved it: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and its exclusion from the Baileys Prize long list is incomprehensible to me. For the rest of the review, click here.

Top Ten Books to Revisit From Childhood

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten books from my childhood that I’d like to revisit.

1. The Horse and His Boy, by CS Lewis. The same goes for all the Chronicles of Narnia except for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which gets enough attention. The Horse and His Boy is the stand-out of the series because it’s set not in Narnia but in a neighbouring country, Calormen. Shasta’s flight from his adoptive father with the talking horse Bree is adventurous and exotic–one might say “exoticizing”, in fact, because Lewis has been frequently accused of anti-Muslim sentiment in this book. Which is why it would be particularly interesting to read again, now, with an adult awareness.

2. The Alanna and Daine books, by Tamora Pierce. I’ve talked about these before, and I’ll talk about them again. They’re the best books I can think of to give to the little girl in your life, whether she be angry, shy, or somewhere in between. The stories of Alanna, who at eleven disguises herself as a boy to learn the skills of knighthood at the palace of the King of Tortall, and of Daine, who is half-mortal and can speak to and through animals, are not only cracking fantasy; they’re also political thrillers, wonder tales, and accounts of friendship and loyalty. They’re beyond great.

3. A Murder For Her Majesty, by Beth Hilgartner. I barely remember any of this, but what vividly stayed with me was the idea of a girl (disguising herself as a boy, again–there’s some thematic coherence here) becoming a chorister at York Minster in the late sixteenth century. Alice, a witness to her father’s murder and afraid that his killers were agents of the Queen, becomes Pup, one of the minster’s choirboys. This, plus seeing a Charlotte Church concert on PBS at a young age (don’t mock; my tastes matured), was what set me on the path to choral singing.

4. Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge is the kind of author you give to children who are already hooked on the mid-century Enid Blyton “jolly good” aesthetic. If your kids are very keen on their Xboxes, they won’t like or understand anything she wrote. But if they like the idea of running away from a mean grandmother to find ultimate acceptance with an eccentric uncle, his one-legged gardener, and the unraveling of a very bucolic English mystery, then they’ll love her. I was in the latter camp.

5. The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Another one that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, this is the story of six urban children whose obsession with Ancient Egypt leads them to play a game where they imagine themselves to be Egyptians; eventually the game seems to be bleeding over into reality. We did Ancient Egypt for practically our entire second grade year at school, but I must have thought the book was too spooky because I’m not sure I ever finished it. I’d love to go back and read it again.

6. Feeling Sorry for Celia, by Jaclyn Moriarty. This probably qualifies more as a YA book than a children’s book. Set in Australia, it’s about Elizabeth, a high schooler whose only friend, Celia, begins to drift away from her. It deals with some impressive issues–emotional manipulation, mental health, self-hatred and self-doubt–without ever losing its light touch. I particularly love how Elizabeth’s own insecurities about how other people see her appear in the forms of letters from institutions such as the Association of Teenagers.

7. Glinda of Oz, by L Frank Baum. For some utterly bizarre reason, I read and reread this over the course of the fourth grade. I haven’t the slightest idea why, other than that it was weirdly thrilling: there was an underwater city enclosed by a giant bubble, an evil queen whose name sounded like a hunting cry, a super bright pink cover, and some evocative line drawings by way of illustration. It would be illuminating to go back and read it again, if only to try and work out why it obsessed me so.

Absolutely matchless early noughties cover design, too.

8. Fearless, by Francine Pascal. “A girl born without the fear gene”–childhood wish fulfilment, check. There are about seventeen thousand of these books and they constituted my introduction to young adult literature. Kickboxing! Sex! Cigarettes! New York City! The very act of reading them was an orgy of rebelliousness. How I would love to go back and do it all again.

9. The Cuckoo Tree, by Joan Aiken. And all of the other books that feature the incomparable Dido Twite, but this is probably the best. Set in an alternative England where James III is on the throne and the “Hanoverian faction” plots to replace him, all of the books are masterpieces, but I particularly loved The Cuckoo Tree because its opening scene is in a carriage traversing the South Downs, where my grandparents live. It’s sort of like Jamaica Inn for kids. Phenomenal.

10. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. The more I think about our assigned reading at primary level, the more I appreciate the way we were stretched by our nerd-school’s ethos. I would never, off the top of my head, consider recommending this book to a nine-year-old. And yet it was one of our choices for summer reading when I was nine, and I read it, and loved it. It’s heavy. There’s poverty in the New York Irish community, a fading marriage, parents who play favorites, and a really horrifying attempted rape scene. (At nine, perhaps fortunately, I didn’t recognize this for what it was, although it still thoroughly creeped me out.) But Francie, our heroine, and her mother Katie, as well as her father Johnny and brother Neeley, always shine through as real characters, who feel and suffer and work hard to survive. It’s just a wonderful book. I’m sure I still have a copy at home in Virginia…

The Bees, by Laline Paull

Our Mother, who art in labour/Hallowed be thy Womb

Anthropomorphized animals are, generally speaking, the provenance of children’s literature: think Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty. Yet even those supposedly G-rated books are often darker than they appear at first. The first half of Watership Down is virtually a horror story, with poor little Fiver playing the Cassandra role as a seer whose visions of doom are fatally disregarded. Black Beauty contains harrowing depictions of violence and neglect against working animals. The Wind in the Willows, of course, has its terrifying Wild Wood. Even Winnie the Pooh contains Heffalumps and Woozles, and Peter Rabbit the notorious Mr McGregor. Good writers tend towards the truth, and they present the animal kingdom much as it is: red in tooth and claw, even if our protagonists are usually not the predators.

Laline Paull’s debut novel The Bees, which has been longlisted for the Baileys Prize, is distinctly in this tradition, but no one would mistake The Bees for a children’s novel.

Our protagonist is, in the finest tradition, something of an underdog. (Underbee? No, I promise not to make any puns or portmanteaux during the course of this review. Honestly.) Flora 717 is born into the lowliest caste in her hive: as sanitation workers, her kin are forbidden to speak, and are always the first to be sacrificed in times of low pollen yield and austerity. But Flora can speak, and although ordinarily this would make her worthy of the Kindness (the nature of which, if you’re at all familiar with Orwell, ought to be clear), one of the priestess class–a Sister Sage–chooses to show her mercy and keep her alive. Flora goes from nursery worker to temporary attendant on the Queen, and finally, after showing kindness to a dying forager bee named Lily 500, she takes Lily’s place, as a scout who brings the sustenance of pollen back to the hive. But the most sacred law of all–Only the Queen may breed–is about to be tested, and the whole society of the hive must adapt as a result…

There are some great things about The Bees: its ambition, for one thing. Its content would be hard enough to pull off (how do you create empathy for an insect?) without the heavy thematic load with which beehives are also freighted. Renaissance philosophers used them as mini-metaphors for the autocratic monarchies by which they themselves were governed; such strict hierarchy can easily be made into a mirror of humanity. Some of this comes across strongly, like Flora’s anger at the seemingly unstoppable power of the priestesses, and the profound adoration that all of the bees feel for the Queen, who is referred to as Holy Mother, both their progenitor and their divinity. Some of it is more slippery: the relationship between the drones and the female bees, for instance, seems to gesture towards commentary on human male-female relations, but is at various points either too heavy-handed or too vague to be effective. Meanwhile, the question of how to create empathy for a bee remains only half-answered. We do feel for Flora, but that is mostly because we see things through her eyes (antennae–ok, enough). I never got a sense of Flora as a character, never felt as though I understood her personality or individuality. Maybe this is intentional, since a member of a collective consciousness can only ever have a certain level of individuality. Yet the whole point of the novel was Flora 717’s uniqueness, and although I didn’t need her to be some kind of superhero, I did expect a little bit more…differentiation.

Paull has one particular tactic which turns up again and again, and which makes the reading experience more challenging than it otherwise would be: she writes a scene, gets nine-tenths of the way towards resolving it, and then introduces either an absolute emergency (wasp attack, sudden appearance of the fertility police, etc.) or a mere obstruction (call to prayer, returning foragers). Possibly this is meant to mirror the contingency of insect life, but the effect of rushing from crisis to crisis is that we have a hard time working out what’s actually happening, and whether it’s important or not. It’s the sort of problem that I imagine arises from not quite having worked your plot out clearly in your mind, and a strict editor or agent could have picked up on it.

The plot becomes more urgent about three-quarters of the way through. That also suggests to me that Paull knew her premise and how she wanted to end, but found the midsection difficult to plan. Still, once the fight for supremacy within the hive is on, it’s absolutely gripping: the political violence rivals Game of Thrones, which I know is quite an assertion, but you read the massacre scene (not a huuuge spoiler) and tell me you didn’t think of the season 2 riots in King’s Landing. There are also some redeeming sections of prose, such as a disturbingly evocative description of greenhouse flowers, including a Venus flytrap, which had me feeling both sick and fascinated. The ending has a lovely circle-of-life neatness, and I did close the book feeling satisfied.

Does The Bees deserve its place on the Baileys longlist? Probably, if mostly for the singularity of the idea and the sheer balls required to execute it in the first place. Is Paull a prose stylist? Not really–and how you feel about that probably determines how you’ll feel about this book. Conceptually, it’s fascinating; in practice, it sometimes underdelivers. Though I sure as hell won’t be looking at honeybees (or spiders, or wasps, or bluebottles…) in the same way ever again.

I read this for Shiny New Books’ inaugural book club: come join in the conversation (link to be posted when live)!

Top Ten: Books On My Spring TBR Pile

All of these are sitting on my bedside table right now, in a teetering pile. I hope they don’t fall over.

Shingle Street, by Blake Morrison: because I read his poem “Happiness” in the Guardian books review and thought, Any poet whose idea of happiness involves sitting in the garden with a Thomas Hardy novel and some damson jam on toast is worth investigating further.

Congo, by David Van Reybrouck: because my uncle has worked there for the past four?five? years, and it’s a very complex (and dangerous) country, and Van Reybrouck writes almost novelistic journalism, in the best possible way.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, by Alice Furse: because apparently its depiction of twenty-something office-worker malaise is second to none, and I am in a life stage where I can appreciate that aesthetic.

The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture: because, as an American citizen, this is stuff I ought to make the effort to know about. Also because they went to all that trouble to write it.

Guantanamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi: see above. I think this will provide a very interesting counterpoint to the Senate’s official report, and I will hopefully be able to write an article for Quadrapheme on the benefits of reading private and public documents side-by-side.

Grits, by Niall Griffiths: because I bought it ages ago and it’s about hardbitten Welsh people in the ‘90s and why on earth not.

All About Love, by bell hooks: because bell hooks. Srsly. Why haven’t I just read this damn book already. (Answer: I’m sort of afraid of it. Which is a great reason to start.)

Alms for Oblivion, by Simon Raven: because I gather it’s a bit like A Dance To the Music of Time for the mid-to-late twentieth century. Also because the front cover is psychedelic and I like that. (I actually do make book-buying decisions based on things like this, sometimes.)

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth: because Bunter gave it to me for Christmas, and he managed to read all eighteen zillion pages of it while revising for Finals, so I’ll be damned if I can’t read it under normal circumstances.

The Moon and Sixpence, by W Somerset Maugham: because Bunter (again!) lent it to me, and I need to give it back to him, and it’s based on the life of Paul Gaugin, who, in case you didn’t know, ran away from his wife and family in Paris to become a painter in Tahiti. It’ll be my Classics Club read for March, hopefully.

The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

That was the beginning of that summer…

When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and me on holidays in Devon with my mother’s entire extended family: her parents, her three siblings, their spouses, and their kids. Eighteen of us would rent out one huge house–never the same one twice; there seems to be a glut of rentable mansions in Devon, possibly the result of the landed nobility in this country realizing how difficult it is to maintain the fabric of an estate and consequently flogging their hunting lodges to Helpful Holidays–and we’d be there for a week or so. It was like living in a wonderful fantasy of freedom. The cousins, of whom I am the oldest and whom I therefore bore some responsibility towards in those days, would lay elaborate plots to fool the grown-ups into thinking we had gone to bed. Once, very early on, when I was about seven, my next oldest cousin Sarah and I planned to sneak out of our rooms while the adults were eating dinner, and to roam about the fields in the dying light, bothering cows and picking blackberries. We didn’t get further than the hall door before we were spotted from the dining room, scolded, and returned upstairs. There were other plots: to row downriver to Totnes (something one cousin actually managed in the company of several uncles, at about five in the morning; they returned with bacon sandwiches for breakfast and the morning papers.) Excursions to neighboring farms, which had puppies and calves. Games in the swimming pool and on the green, manicured lawns, with the shadows of boxwood hedges lengthening over them in the evenings. Always something happening in the kitchen; always, somewhere, cake and tea. Visits to the seaside which were always excitingly uncomfortable; they generally involved bladderwrack, sandy cheese sandwiches, and sea anemones in rock pools, and tended to culminate in soft serve ice cream topped by a Flake, a seagull attack, misery, being comforted, and falling asleep in the back of the car on the way home, wrapped in a sun-warmed towel.

I mention all of this because Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel The Light Years is about a similar tradition in the Cazalet family: each summer, the three grown-up sons descend on Home Place, in Sussex, where their parents and unmarried sister Rachel still live, with wives and children in tow. There, for three months, they are all together: playing, quarreling, the men going back and forth to manage the family timber business in London, the women coping with boredom and pregnancy and forming unexpected friendships with one another. This first book is set in 1937 and 1938; the shadow of war is looming on the horizon, and the subsequent four books (it’s part of a series) will take us through the war and out the other side.

Howard is a marvelous writer. She was married to Kingsley Amis, which made me expect her to be tough as nails and possibly even a bit nasty (as I think he was), but instead, she captures with absolute grace and warmth the dynamic of a large extended family. Amongst the three sons, Edward is a charming cad, Hugh sensitive and kind to his wife (and in almost constant pain from injuries suffered during the First World War), and Rupert in some difficulty after having married a very young, very beautiful and very demanding woman for whom his career as a painter is going to have to be sacrificed. Their wives–Villy, Sybil, and Zoe–struggle with the limitations of life as a woman in the 1930s; Zoe in particular is rather tragic because, at the age of twenty-two, she knows perfectly well that her beauty is her only positive characteristic. She lives in fear of becoming pregnant or aging in any way, convinced that once she has “lost her looks”, neither Rupert nor anyone else will continue to love her.

There are many children, all of whom are drawn with precision and many of whom are given dialogue that repeatedly made me giggle out loud for the way it captures the precarious, dignified, loony logic of preadolescents. Neville, one of the youngest at about five or so, wants to bring a jellyfish home from the beach:

‘And anyway,’ Polly said, ‘it’s not a pet! You couldn’t, by the wildest stretch of imagination, turn a jellyfish into a pet!’ ‘I could,’ Neville said. ‘I shall be the first person in the world to do that. I shall call him Bexhill and live with him.’

She is also very good on fear: Polly is terrified of the next war, while Teddy is so afraid of being made to go away to school that he tries to infect himself with chicken pox, which would put him in quarantine for several months. The interactions between parents and children are beautifully understated: the Cazalets are a very middle-class family, with all the emotional repression that entails, but Hugh’s attempts to comfort his daughter at the death of her cat made me rather teary, with his awkward sadness for his daughter’s sadness competing with her attempts to be brave.

The Cuckmere Valley in Sussex, painted by Eric Ravilious

Other characters are given the chance to air their thoughts through free indirect speech, too: Tonbridge, the driver, whose budding romance with Mrs Cripps, the cook, is never explicitly alluded to but which takes the form of cups of tea and sympathy, progressing to an evening in a pub, and (we can only hope) further. Meanwhile, Miss Milliment, the remarkably ugly but gentle governess of the older girls (Louise, Polly and Clary) is portrayed with great sympathy and poignancy: the only man she ever loved was killed in the Boer War, she asks for very little out of life, and she retains a delight in the aptitude of her pupils which marks out the best of teachers. The final scene in the book is Miss Milliment’s; having promised the girls that she would give something up that she really loved if Chamberlain managed to preserve peace with Germany, she finds herself having to keep the promise when appeasement is announced. She buries her dead fiancé’s letters in the woods, then

[…] shut her eyes to recall him for the last time on the evening before he had left for South Africa…He had taken her out in the garden, seized her hand, and recited to her the end of ‘Dover Beach’.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new…

…and then she could not remember how the poem went on, and as she groped towards the darkling plain, it diminished, and was silent.

It’s like Downton Abbey without the melodrama or the loathsome stereotyping, and its sense of gorgeous golden days being threatened by the shadow of another European war is absolutely unparalleled. I adored it, and will be reading the rest of the Cazalet Chronicles in short order.