New Look at a saga's close

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The Independent Culture
Casting off is what you do when you finish your knitting. It is also what you do in a boat, when setting sail for the open sea. In this, the last of her quartet of novels about the Cazalet family, Elizabeth Jane Howard reassembles her cast, ties them neatly together and sends them off into an unknown future. It is, you might say, satisfactory.

You might also say that it is beautifully written, with the deceptive ease of a fine novelist completely in charge of her material. Her late husband, Kingsley Amis, once said disparagingly of his son Martin that he was incapable of writing the plain sentence, "He finished his drink and left''. He could never have said that of her.

Yet behind her simple style lie complex ideas. Sometimes these are expressed in ironic inversions of cliche. Over lunch poor Villy, the abandoned wife of Edward Cazalet, finds comfort in the opportunity to tell her friend Hermione how awful she feels, but Hermione is an incurable pragmatist who proffers innumerable helpful suggestions. Exhausted, Villy escapes, "hedged in by possibilities'', to Archie, the family friend in whom everyone confides. He feels such sympathy with the whole bunch of them that he can no longer "see the trees for the wood''.

Howard is perceptive, both literally, as when describing a "lumpy thrush hauling a worm out of the grass with short, irritable tugs'', and more profoundly, as when observing the effects of sorrow. Hugh Cazalet, a widower, is worn down by his loss, by "the effort of trying to turn grief into regret, to live entirely on past nourishment... he had got horribly used to missing her. This was described by other people as getting over it''. And Howard appreciates the wild hopes entertained by children of divorcing parents. There is a poignant scene when Villy's little son announces that he knows why his large father has left. It is because the ceilings are too low: everything could be all right again if they got a taller house.

The story begins with the Labour landslide of 1945 and ends with Indian independence. Public events, however, impinge little on the Cazalets. Soldiers return home and jobs are scarce, the war has battered weary, fog-bound London, but they feel its effects most keenly in their stomachs. Howard's touch is never surer than when writing about food. Rationing produces desperate measures: stewed apple that seems to be full of fingernails, dried egg tasting of prayerbooks, Brown Windsor soup and rugged little fillets of plaice. In a dreary station tea-room there is a mercifully brief encounter with sandwiches that are apparently "writhing with antiquity."

Now and again, people escape - to France, where there are juicy black olives and tomatoes strewn with basil, or to America, land of enormous steaks and unlimited butter - but back home they are still hungry. There is a major shortage of servants so that everyone has to learn to cook: food imagery dominates their thinking. An old man has teeth like the old yellow almonds on a fruitcake; the retired governess at a wedding is arrayed in a suit the colour of blackberry fool; a child's mouth is pale red and translucent, like the skin of a redcurrant.

But in spite of the hardships, they all get on with their lives. They button up their bust-bodices, snap shut their suspenders and slip happily into the New Look, before powdering their noses in public, lighting up their innocent Passing Clouds, setting off to see a new actress called Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit and, as likely as not, falling in love. At least four love-stories are told, but we care most about plain Clary who most deserves - and happily achieves - bliss.

As her reward approaches, she is finishing writing her first novel. The delightful Archie suggests that she must be pleased, but her pleasure is tinged with sadness that she has created so many characters to whom she must now say goodbye. The reader, coming to the end of this splendid saga, feels much the same.