BOOKS : FICTION : Peacetime blues

CASTING OFF by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Macmillan pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
EGGS loom large in this culmination of Elizabeth Jane Howard's wartime chronicle; powdered vs those in shells, coddled as compared to boiled, the time elapsed since a character's last one and the ration book's foreshadowing of the next. VE Day may have come and gone. Japan has yet to surrender. Yet as Howard's cast regroups for the last act, politics is given merely a passing nod and the impact of war is measured largely in terms of marital and building damage and the frequency of eggs.

Infidelity has been rife in wartime, but all hanky-panky takes place decorously off the page: there is none of the raunchiness of Mary Wesley or the spice of Patricia Angadi. Rupert Cazalet, who has been missing since Dunkirk, returns to his family silently pining for the French lover who protected and detained him. Rupert's wife Zoe, thinking he was dead, had taken an American lover who committed suicide, so she, too, silently pines. Every other character is in love with either the wrong person or a dead person; the prevalent dynamic is that of mooning about.

After eggs and infidelity, the novel dwells noticeably on the condition of property. Almost as prominent as the update on crumbling Cazalet marriages are reminders of the need for a really good surveyor to assess Blitz damage. What kind of house will dallying Edward provide for his mistress, as opposed to his wife? Before the war the Cazalet matriarch, "Duchy", would have thought living in flats was "fast", but, as token lesbian Sid points out, "hundreds of people will be taking to flats in the same way that they will have to learn to cook."

Even the wedding whose celebration rounds off the novel comes about when Polly Cazalet, an interior decorator, advises an endearing client on the damp in his Ebury Street flat; this leads to the restoration of his ancestral Norfolk pile. The principal virtue of this white elephant turns out to be an unexpected trove of 52 Turner watercolours carelessly tucked away in the servants' quarters (Gerald's mother would only hang her own watercolours in the house proper), a find which will no doubt pay for a lifetime of wedded redecorating.

Perhaps it is in the nature of chronicles, but character definition here seems to depend inordinately on plot. Howard rounds out the saga so far in a Prologue, so that the background is available to any newcomer to the series. Yet she scarcely ever describes a character's demeanour, expressions, hairstyle or clothes unless they are notably awry. With little sense of anyone's physical presence, the reader is mainly left to consider an individual's bad or better behaviour in the face of life's dirty tricks and ethical challenges. And the Cazalets don't pause overlong over the latter. Characterisation is not so much subtle as shadowy and perfunctory.

Plot, on the other hand, is well served in a satisfying tying-up of narrative threads, but one can't help hoping that this highly skilled writer will soon find fresh faces and horizons with which to take herself and her readers by surprise.