The Dust that Falls from Dreams, by Louis de Bernières - book review

For De Bernières ‘jaw jaw’ is no good without ‘war war’

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At his best, Louis de Bernières can be funny and poignant, charming and touching. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, about an occupied country and love thwarted yet not defeated, was wonderful, with characters that refused to be cowed by life’s tragedies. Like only a minority of novels, it managed to be tragic and amusing – other examples of that magical blend include Nicole Krauss’s sublime The History of Love and Miriam Toews’ harrowing yet still funny All My Puny Sorrows.

So, the whimsy and irony of De Bernières’ writing is a trademark of his, and can produce sweet sorrow. But if overdone, it can become twee. And in this novel, which stretches to more than 500 pages, alas, once the First World War is over, there is little left but family banter and the mild quirkiness of a cast of gentle characters, and that is not enough to hold a novel of such length together.

The story starts early in the 20th century. A family of four daughters and their parents live in Eltham. Hamilton McCosh is a successful entrepreneur married to a shrill wife. Their daughters Rosie, Christabel, Ottilie and Sophie have an idyllic childhood, sandwiched as they are between two houses containing their great friends. On the left are the American boys Sydney, Albert and Ashbridge. On the right are Archie and Daniel. It becomes apparent that Ashbridge and Rosie have eyes for each other from a young age.

Since Ian McEwan’s masterpiece Atonement there have been a few novels which start off with a large dinner party in an affluent mansion and garden with a show put on by children. Whether De Bernières intended this as a tribute to McEwan or not, events pan out in a not dissimilar way. Here, the advent of the First World War in 1914 changes the course of the lives of all the characters. Again as in Atonement, the heroine (Rosie) goes off to become a nurse, here a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment working in Southampton. Rosie’s beloved, Ashbridge, volunteers to join the Honourable Artillery Company.

The war scenes are the best part of the book. As with superlative First World War literature from Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy through Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong to Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, the horrors are vividly evoked. De Bernières is adept at describing how lives can be devastated in minutes, and the camaraderie and courage of those fighting, as well as those in ancillary roles such as nursing, are powerful. There are many scenes following Daniel in his position as a member of the Royal Flying Corps. If only the book had simply spanned the war. Unfortunately, the war is over before the book is halfway finished.

De Bernières’ humour can be delightful, as portrayed in the polite letters sent by the Royal Household in response to Mrs McCosh’s trivial epistles to the King, or the hilarious note sent by two German PoWs who were held in Scotland: “You know that our Fatherland Germany buggered and scunnered is ....” But whimsical humour can’t carry hundreds of pages. Sophie’s (intentional) neologisms and malapropisms extend even into the first night of her honeymoon, and eventually become wearing and fey.

The structure is so traditional that we are even told in the titles of the chapters when they will be told from the first person point of view of specific characters rather than from that of the omniscient narrator. There are more than a hundred short chapters, which suits the wry humour and light tone of the post-war parts, but the numerous fairly banal events and incidents are not enough to sustain interest.

There is plenty of Dickensian social observation extending occasionally into bathos as when an arrogant drunk mows down children in his car (“the little ragged blond boy who looked like an angel had died ...”), or when a stranger’s dog drowns; and the exchanges between the satisfyingly odious Mrs McCosh and the servants Millicent and Cookie are also fun in a Downton Abbey way. If only De Bernèires had started off with the comfort of familial minutiae and ended with the searingly potent war scenes. But there are unusual scenes too, as when a character bumps into the great pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell on a train, or in the introduction of a lesbian feminist, and there are some pleasing parallels with, or nods to, the present day – greedy bankers; a reference to how useful organ donation would be. The element of the supernatural in a palm-reading gypsy and a medium made me roll my eyes, and there is not enough space allocated to the depressive Archie, who is in love with Rosie.

Still, it is a technically well written book and will no doubt be a hit with millions of fans worldwide.