by Edith Cody-Rice
Dipping in to a de Bernières novel is always a deeply delicious experience. He evokes an intimate atmosphere with his characters and pays meticulous attention to detail of the era in which his novels take place. De Bernières was made famous by his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, published in 1994 and set in Cephallonia Greece, during the Italian and German occupation of the Second World War. My favourite to date, however, has been Birds Without Wings, which takes place in post World War One Turkey during the rise of Ataturk. It is fully of tragedy, humour and irony. His new novel, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, is set in London England before during and after the First World War. Its characters, as in the other two novels, are caught up in tragic circumstances not of their making.
The story centers on three families, the McCoshes, a merchant class family with four daughters and aspirations to higher social status (at least in the case of Mrs. McCosh), the Pendennises, an American family with three sons, and the Pitts, an Anglo French family (the husband is English, the wife French) who initially, before the commencement of the novel, had 4 sons, but are now down to two, the other two having been killed in the Boer War. All are neighbours in London England.
The main characters are introduced in 1902, as the Edwardian age kicks off, in a garden party given by the McCoshes to celebrate the coronation. The four daughters and all the boys from both families are still children. The love interests are already there. The eldest Pendennis boy, Asbridge, is in love with the eldest McCosh daughter and presents her with a childish engagement ring. Daniel Pitt is also in love with Rosie as is his brother Archie. Ottilie, a McCosh daughter, harbours an unrequited passion for Archie Pitt. All is peaceful and joyous.
The novel then skips forward to 1914 as England enters the disastrous First World War. The boys are of military age and enter the war. The women search for wartime roles. There are scenes of the devastating trench warfare in France – boys die or are grievously injured and lives are blown apart, not only by the war but by the Spanish flu which follows it. On the home front, two of the daughters exhaust themselves as volunteer nurses, or VADs.
The story interweaves the lives of the three families, principally through the children but including their parents and servants through the war and in to the 1920’s. We follow the families as life in England forever changes from the stasis and glory of the Victorian age and the characters learn to absorb loss, grieve and do for themselves.
As always, de Bernières evokes the era with his reference to activities and objects of the time, woven into the lives of his characters. There is much conversation among pilots of spitfires and camels and many of the expressions, or even objects of the era, that have fallen out of our vocabulary, are reinstated. I repeatedly had to resort to Wikipedia to find out just what the characters were talking about from gas bag cars to old military songs. In fact some of the chapters, particularly conversations among the young wartime pilots seem to have the sole purpose of evoking the age. If you don’t want to interrupt the flow to find out about each expression, however, their use enhances the story but doesn’t distract.
This is a compelling tale of love and tragedy as the era of the British Empire draws to a close and the novel reflects upon how circumstances beyond one’s control determine a life. At 511 pages, it is a substantial read.
The Dust that Falls from Dreams is published by Alred A. Knopf Canada