This, the second in Louis de Bernières‘s trilogy of historical novels dealing with England in the first half of the twentieth century, is a difficult book to review. It follows Daniel and Rosie Pitt from the conclusion of The Dust That Falls From Dreams on their short sojourn in pre-independence Sri Lanka at the end of the Great War, and it ends as World War II gets underway. Given both the status of So Much Life Left Over as the ‘difficult middle book’ and the historical era that is its focus, this is thus a little like reviewing the middle pages in a novel – you know where it’s been and you know further tragedy lies ahead but, for the most part, you’re in a waiting room, pulled towards a destiny which is clear but whose journey is proving long and somewhat difficult.
Indeed, given what follows in this review, it might be better to see the whole trilogy as a single work. In this sense, I do wonder whether future editions might usefully combine all three works into a single volume: depending, of course, both on the content and the precise length of the – as yet unpublished and perhaps still unwritten (M. de Bernières’s website needs a little updating) – third volume.
The essential premise of the novel is a simple one: what do combatants who survive a war (and without having expected to – though that really goes without saying), and who therefore have ‘so much life left over’, do once the peace comes? This is the question facing Daniel, a man of considerable abilities as well as uncertainties, prone to emotionalism but yet with a substantial appetite for life, and whose story and perspective fills the overwhelming majority of the book. He seeks to resolve this question with his wife and new daughter in the Sri Lanka of colonial times, but an unresolved, and partially unexplained, tragedy sees them make an early return to the UK where Daniel, a reluctant leaver from Sri Lanka, feels increasingly frozen out of family life.
Structurally, this looks very much what we have come to expect from a de Bernières novel: short, episodic chapters told from a single perspective which both pull the story along and which develop the characterisation. There is humour here, and pathos, and genuine sadness, too – although the work of the author as puppet master is occasionally all too visible. The major trouble is, however, that this is all about Daniel and, without consistent and characterisation, such episodes increasingly resemble vignettes – engaging but uninvolving. Of Rosie, whose perspectives dominated the first novel, there is – inexplicably, given the plot – next to nothing (to do this is barely excusable other than in the ‘middle pages’ scenario that I referred to). This is unsatisfactory not least from a feminist perspective – and there are other characters in the novel whose pre-feminism would serve the telling of a much more rounded story. Meanwhile, other characters feature to some degree before being dropped almost completely and whose role is almost exclusively only in support of the development of the character of Daniel. This includes Archie, an older brother whose war trauma leaves him to live in a one-room hovel – somewhat oddly, we might have thought, for a man whose extended family are of considerable means.
The other difficulty with the story here is that an historical novel ought to reflect something of modern times if it is to have continuing resonance. A ‘between these wars’ novel about a family (actually, families, given the one reference to the origins of Gaskell’s wealth) of some means might, for example, have usefully referenced the fatal attraction that the English upper classes had for the growth of fascism and, while this might not necessarily have broken new literary ground, it would have provided an alternative anchor for the story as well as providing an interesting take on current-day events. The rise of fascism in Germany is referenced (Daniel also has a sojourn in Germany) but there are no references in a UK context. Clearly we shouldn’t review a book on the basis of what content we think the author should have put in it – yet, without something like this and a stronger role for more of the characters who pass through the story, what we are left with is an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of kitchen sink drama in which the older members are straight from central Edwardian eccentric casting while the women are either gushing or cold, and the representatives of the working class are largely salt-of-the-earth types. All of course, absolute caricatures but this is what happens in a book where the characterisation is, additionally, somewhat sentimental and where the characters themselves are differentially developed.
de Bernières is a much better, and much cleverer, author than this. His Birds Without Wings – set in Turkey interestingly in the same historical period and which provided a prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – remains one of my favourite novels. What alleviates the picture here is both de Bernières’s palmarès and the awareness that this is, simply, the middle book in a trilogy. We should also carefully note that, while it is not autobiographical, the plot lines of both the first two novels in the trilogy have been drawn out from major developments within de Bernières’s own family. There is enough here, and there are sufficient little bombs which have been carefully planted in the text, for the third volume to provide an explosive end to the story and to lift this second volume out of the doldrums – provided that the third volume indeed allows those little bombs to do their work.
Ultimately, as a stand-alone novel, this is a rather unsatisfactory work but we need to make some allowances in view of its positional status and we should, therefore, perhaps hold back on making too harsh a judgment on it – at least, until we have the chance to review it in retrospect.