Autumn on a home front

Patrick Gale enjoys a saga of myths and mellow fruitiness
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The Independent Culture
Echoes of War by William Riviere, Sceptre, pounds 16.99

The end of the last century was marked by literary decadence and anti-respectable satire. As the fin looms to our siecle, novelists seem drawn in a very different direction - to that most bourgeois of forms, the family saga. Among gay writers, the impulse behind this is the threat of the Aids epidemic to erase memories along with lives, and a desire to delineate common ground with ancestors. Sagas emerging in the mainstream, however, hark back to the first half of the century and its two world wars. Perhaps the imminence of full European union is feeding this odd nostalgia, or the lack of a common enemy, or simply a climate of moral relativity.

At first glance, William Riviere's addition to the heap contains all the salient ingredients of the uniforms- and-heartache genre. There are two Norfolk manor houses, a Tuscan villa and the glamour of interwar Rangoon.

As well as the honourable, war-torn clan at the story's heart, there is a strangely beautiful wayward heroine, a smattering of attractive but morally flawed gentry, oodles of money, doomed love, frocks, family jewels and balls aplenty. Wrapped in a wartime-romance cover, Echoes of War is marketed as an autumnal indulgence, something to be devoured over a long assignation with a box of Malteasers and a bottle of Baileys.

Riviere is far too talented and interesting a writer to produce anything so pedestrian, however. He tries to slum it - presumably at the urging of agent or publisher - and succeeds here and there. His interest in psychological truth repeatedly defeats the banality of the proposed material, producing at times the weird effect of reading a Rosamunde Pilcher novel rewritten by Ian McEwan.

There is a constant undercurrent of pain, an uncomfortable awareness of the effort of maintaining a civilised social front, an unsettling ambivalence to most characterisations. With the exception of the servants, who are the time-honoured stereotypes of tight-lipped dedication and unswerving loyalty, none of Riviere's characters are reducible to their defining traits. Rather, he gives us personalities, with all the psychological contradictions and moral complexity the term implies.

The central figure is a society painter and war hero, Charles Lammas, whose marriage to adoring but inhibited Blanche was founded on their each having lost a brother in the 1914-18 conflict. As well as their son and daughter they have an extended family in the shape of Blanche's feckless, fatherless nephew, who marries local money, and Charles's wayward goddaughter. The latter, the strange beauty Georgia Burney, provides one of its chief emotional conduits. She conducts an illicit, quasi-incestuous affair with Charles's son before moving on to a family friend old enough to be her father.

Riviere is startlingly strong on physical detail. He evokes the Norfolk landscape, the smells and sounds of a traditional country Christmas and the sensations of a Boxing Day shoot with the same sensuous precision he has brought to bear on the Mediterranean and Far East, both settings which he incidentally returns to here.

The title implies that this is to be a novel about warfare perceived at a distance. In the 1930s, Norfolk was peculiarly remote. Blanche is more taken up with horseflesh and herbaceous borders than with distant politics, just as Charles's primary concerns are his painting and the possibility of acquiring a young Italian mistress.

Even once the war gets underway we see it filtered through garbled, late letters, unhelpful telegrams and Home Guard directives. When the survivors return to Norfolk, each has witnessed and suffered atrocities. The rural routines, centred around church, architecture and the pleasures of field and table which the older characters have battled to preserve, are offered back to them at the end.

A humble, autumn wedding proves a kind of redeeming cultural ritual. The effect, however corny and Mrs Miniver-ish, touched even this old cynic.

If the novel loses its way it is when Riviere breaks away from his Norfolk world to give us chunks of history or to show us in close-up atrocities in Burma or Europe which might have proved more shocking delivered indirectly. He also has an unfortunate habit of lessening the impact of narrative developments by hinting at them in advance.

Echoes of War is no great addition to the catalogue of war literature - although its evocation of the horrors suffered by European women under the Japanese proves a corrective to the relatively cosy picture painted by Tenko. As a record of an intensely English country scene, however, it is sure to win admirers among the urban disaffected or homesick.