I would describe myself as a fan of Louis de Bernières and so when this book arrived I jumped straight in. Sadly, I’m not convinced that de Bernières did that himself. This is a hard review to write, but this was not my favourite read of the year.
This is a WWI book that opens with the death of Queen Victoria and is an upper class family period saga. The family of four daughters is disrupted by the war and there are the other tensions of the time. I found the main character Rosie a whiny, over-religious young woman with no gumption. I know that’s harsh, but let me elaborate. She spends much of this book clutching and stroking a statute of the Madonna that she keeps hidden under her bed in her wealthy Anglican home. She has the pick of the boys living next door – the French boys on one side and the American on the other. As her love is thwarted by the war and their charmed lives are changed forever, Rosie decides to wallow in self-pity. Well, it feels that way to me, at least.
There is some amazing historical writing related to the political times, the descriptions of a war fought in putrid trenches, with mates and enemies rotting beneath one’s feet, are some of the best I have read. And a snippet of upper class life at this transition form Victorian to Georgian times is exquisite.
There are inevitable ructions as the new fangled motorcar starts to appear on the streets where horses and people dominate. And I think the postwar episodes, where highly decorated war pilots are required to transition into civilian life, are particularly insightful and engaging. It’s an aspect of war that we tend to ignore – the “lucky ones” who survive but then have to leave their skills behind and transition into a mundane civilian life.
I was a little concerned by the way some topical aspects are almost forced into the story. One of Rosie’s four sisters enters into a romantic relationship with a woman who is presented in such a clichéd way you can see it coming a mile away. Although nobody in the book seems to.
De Bernières also has the young men pondering the morality of war in their letters home in a way that only hindsight can contribute to:
“It’s a game of dog in the bloody manger. That’s why we are bogged down, dealing with people who aren’t like us and don’t want to be like us, and don’t know the difference between us and the Russians.”
But in the same letter, just a few lines down the author makes this clichéd judgment:
“… all they want is to settle back into their feuds and raids and poppy farming and stoning and tribal war. Killing and dying is all they live for, it seems to me, and we get in the way of their fun.”
Similarly, in another passage, he writes:
“…do you ever have doubts about this empire business? The white man’s Burden, our civilizing mission and all that?”
And yes, these young men could have been deeply philosophical but these are episodic and sparse and feel at odds with the rest of their behavior, which is all “king and country” and “self-sacrifice for the cause”.
There is one lovely moment, when you think the book is going to get interesting, when Rosie’s husband, feeling the cold shun of his wife, nearly has an affair with one of the servants. Oh, how I wish he had, it would have made the book more interesting and perhaps a tad more realistic.
I am still a fan of de Bernières, but, if like me you loved his other books, this one may disappoint. On the other hand, if you love this time period, and love an epic story of war and love, this could be just what you are looking for.