The Dust that Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernières, book review: When the lights went out on Edwardian London

De Bernières' new novel is inspired by a slice of his own family history

War and romance with an epic sweep is what people expect of Louis de Bernières. It is not, of course, all that he has written but it is what he is most famous for, particularly in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, now marking its 21st birthday, and in his last major novel, Bird Without Wings, of 2004.

And it is to war and romance that he returns in The Dust that Falls from Dreams, the first of a planned trilogy of novels inspired by a tiny slice of his own family history – how his grandmother's first fiancé died of wounds received in battle in the First World War. The author's opening dedication to them is, it has to be said, something of a spoiler.

The story begins after the death of Queen Victoria in the warm glow of the new Edwardian England, with a coronation party in the garden of Mr and Mrs Hamilton McCosh of Eltham and their four daughters, Rosie, Christabel, Ottilie and Sophie. The American Pendennis boys, Sidney, Albert and Ashbridge, live on one side; the Pitts, Daniel and Archie, on the other; and their fortunes are to be intertwined through coming decades. That's it on the plot because it just seems too mean to spoil it, even if this rather hinders the rest of this review.

Daniel vaults the garden wall to kick proceedings off in a sprightly manner but this momentum is not initially maintained. There were moments in the opening chapters when the historical backdrop seemed supplied in trowels and First World War Britain emerged as rather dull.

But I was quickly sucked into the story, and an alternative conclusion took hold: that there was a genuine daily monotony for those stuck worrying at home amid endless days of rain, interspersed only by news of neighbour's bereavements. And instead of a surfeit of history, there were eventually so few specific dates as to be almost confusing for anyone hazy as to, for instance, the timeline of women's suffrage.

De Bernières shifts focus chapter by chapter in a manner perhaps inconsistent but enviably pragmatic. There are pages told by an omniscient author, others seen through the eyes – and voices – of individual characters, from the abbreviated sentences of Ashbridge in his war diary to the gentleman-in-his-club manner of Mr McCosh or the fervent prayers of the God-fearing Rosie.

What it is like to be a fighter ace is thrillingly evoked, as Daniel defies death in airborne battles with the Germans in breathless detail. It's the heroic stuff of Boys' Own adventures. The nasty, smelly, distressing consequences of war, however, are not shied from as the sisters step up to play their part, nursing the wounded as the war breaks down social codes that will never be restored.

The inner life of de Bernières' lively roll call of characters is as vivid as the external realities, as he explores how anyone might recover from the death of someone they had loved since childhood, and how those who witness such deaths might struggle to readjust to civilian life.

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