The Dust That Falls From Dreams
Pantheon, 511 pages
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