The Dust That Falls From Dreams

Pan­theon, 511 pages

Pasatiempo - - MIXED MEDIA - by Louis de Bernières,

As World War I nov­els go, Willa Cather’s One of

Ours wears a lu­mi­nous halo. Who can forget Claude Wheeler’s silent mis­ery on a Ne­braska farm? When the U.S. en­ters the war, Claude at last finds pur­pose and a way to get to France. Cather’s novel packs emo­tional heat be­cause it isn’t only about the war trans­form­ing Claude’s life, but also about how his fam­ily and com­mu­nity back home are sim­i­larly for­ever changed by the con­flict. The Dust That Falls from Dreams is worth read­ing for many of the same rea­sons. Louis de Bernières is play­ful and ex­pan­sive in con­trast to Cather’s com­pressed as­ceti­cism. He takes us into the trenches of World War I, but un­like Cather’s story, this multi-char­ac­ter saga dwells on life on the home front (in this case, Bri­tain) in the years af­ter the war.

At the age of eleven, Rosie McCosh gets en­gaged to a young friend us­ing a cur­tain ring. One of four daugh­ters, Rosie likes to read poetry, and her lov­ing at­tach­ment to her be­trothed is as po­etic as can be. Her fa­ther is a reck­less in­vestor and chases af­ter patents, and her mother is a devo­tee of the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy. Queen Vic­to­ria has just died and a brief, golden Ed­war­dian age has dawned. It is at a party to cel­e­brate the corona­tion of Ed­ward when two in­deli­ble mo­ments color Rosie’s child­hood: her afore­men­tioned be­trothal to Ash Pen­den­nis, who lives on one side of Rosie’s house in the coun­try­side south of Lon­don, and a breath­tak­ing vault over a wall by Daniel and Archie Pitt, who live on the other side.

It’s not giv­ing too much away to say that Ash goes to war as a pri­vate and dies there — his death is fore­shad­owed to some de­gree be­fore he leaves. The rest of the novel is about how Rosie and her sis­ters fare. They join the ranks of women who served as nurses and am­bu­lance driv­ers. Both World Wars forced women to ree­val­u­ate their abil­i­ties. One McCosh sis­ter, So­phie, be­comes a driver for the RAF and re­mains a tal­ented au­to­mo­bile me­chanic af­ter her re­turn to civil­ian life. Rosie and an­other sis­ter vol­un­teer in hos­pi­tals. Af­ter a bomb­ing raid on Bri­tish civil­ians, even the stiff Mrs. McCosh learns how to shoot, if only to ex­pend her fury on wood pigeons and rats. When the war ends, th­ese women won’t be con­tent to re­turn to what they did be­fore the war — sim­ply sit and em­broi­der in their morn­ing room.

In de­tail­ing a time when Bri­tain was discussing whether or not women should have the right to vote, de Bernières is sen­si­tive to the fate of his fe­male char­ac­ters. Ash’s friend, Cor­po­ral Hutchin­son from the Hon­or­able Ar­tillery Com­pany, re­turns in­tact from the war, but then he con­tracts Span­ish in­fluenza. Rosie bravely nurses him on her own in the McCosh house. When at last she brings Dr. Scott in to ex­am­ine her pa­tient, Dr. Scott says, “You’ve done ex­actly what any doc­tor such as my­self would have rec­om­mended. I have al­ways had the great­est ad­mi­ra­tion for what you and your sis­ter Ot­tilie have done in this war, and in­deed, I would nowa­days, af­ter ev­ery­thing I have seen and learned, go so far as to say ‘Pif­fle’ to any­one who as­serts that a woman can­not make a good doc­tor.” Still, this was not a time when Rosie would have been en­cour­aged to go to med­i­cal school. A girl­friend of one sis­ter, Christa­bel, pro­poses a toast to Ox­ford, which will at last let women get a de­gree.

The novel has a gen­tle but in­tent flow. At first it’s sur­pris­ing the story doesn’t end af­ter the war is over. The drama is gone. Why does the novel drag on? Then we re­al­ize this story is as much about the af­ter­math of the war. Will Rosie tie her fate to a dead man (Ash), or as Daniel’s mother advises her, make a liv­ing man happy? That the au­thor ap­proves of Rosie’s choice is ev­i­dent in the ded­i­ca­tion, which I didn’t pick up on un­til af­ter I read the novel. In the ded­i­ca­tion, which sug­gests the story is in­spired by de Berniéres’ grand­mother, the real Ash’s date of death is given as Feb. 19, 1915. That was a hun­dred years ago. Since then, there have been in­nu­mer­able books and nov­els about the war. But the scenes of men wast­ing away in the trenches in­fested with lice, rats, bul­lets, and rot­ting body parts strike just as hard as they must have when the first crop of World War I sto­ries emerged.

Daniel Pitt is an in­trigu­ing char­ac­ter: An ace fighter pi­lot, he ex­udes an air of ad­ven­ture. He has the good sense to be grate­ful that he’s sur­vived the war. He waits pa­tiently, al­beit at ri­otous Royal Fly­ing Corps gath­er­ings, for Rosie’s grief to ebb away. De­spite his sta­tus as war hero, he is will­ing to make a new start in life to sup­port his fu­ture wife. In the end, he sur­vives not only the war, but also the provo­ca­tions of his mother-in-law.

Af­ter the war, the au­to­mo­bile me­chanic sis­ter, So­phie, chooses do­mes­tic bliss while Christa­bel adopts a bo­hemian life­style and shows her pho­tog­ra­phy at art gal­leries. As for Rosie, she moves to Cey­lon and finds it in her­self — af­ter all her heart­break and the maimed sol­diers she has nursed — to write poetry again. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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