OF MARRIAGE AND FAITHFULNESS
Between wars, men and women go on living, having bewildering affairs and unrequited love, writes
Louis de Bernières’ new novel picks up where he left off in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, though you do not have to have read that to appreciate this book.
It opens in a valley in colonial Ceylon in the years after World War 1, where two former fighter pilots are shooting the breeze as well as a row of tin cans.
“Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death.” They, and other survivors, “had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with”.
Daniel loves Ceylon and his job on a tea plantation, but when his wife Rosie gives birth to a stillborn baby, she falls into a depression and insists that they return to England to the bosom of her sprawling family.
De Bernières employs a multi-hued, multi-voiced technique to narrate the story, which is character- rather than plot-driven. Rosie has three sisters: the giddy Sophie, married to a doubting Anglican minister, Ottilie who is in love with Daniel’s brother but who settles for another, and Christabel, a Bohemian who lives with a woman artist in a distinctly Bloomsbury setup.
If anything, So Much Life Left Over is a study of the nature of marriage and faithfulness. Affairs abound, loves go unrequited, they burgeon or sour and are compromised. Some fly. One senses a society bewildered, groping for purpose even as it trudges towards another war.
Colourful and quickly moving, De Bernières counters humour with darker strokes. Daniel’s heroic, officer brother becomes a street-sweeping drunk; his son will have nothing to do with him.
Most moving of all is the character of the gardener, Oily Wragge. Wragge spends his days hiding in a cave beneath the conservatory, trying to shut out his nightmares of the war in Mesopotamia, the death marches and his slavery in Anatolia: “Starved and ill, in heat so scorching it can’t be imagined or told, without food, without water, we are driven along by Arab horsemen. The beatings with rifle butts, the trampling of the dying. Shit running down our legs, pains like childbirth in our guts. Yallah! Yallah! Move on! Move on!”
As the guns of war sound yet again, De Bernières leaves the stage open for the last book in the trilogy.
Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is character-driven.
So Much Life Left Over ★★★★ Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, R290