Friday, 20 December 2013

Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Once you've started with the Cazalets, it is hard to stop. I found myself following on from The Light Years with the second book in the series, Marking Time. This is definitely much darker than the first, beginning as it does with the start of the Second World War.
    At first war has little effect on the family - Hugh must carry on helping run the family business, particularly now the Brig is going blind. Edward is too old for active service but does his bit at an airfield, giving him irregular hours and limited leave - a perfect cover for his continued affair with Diana. Rupert enlists with the Navy and this seems a safe corner in the war effort until Dunkirk, where he is listed as missing.
    Clary is the only one of the family who dares to believe her father is alive while her step-mother, Zoe, has to cope with bringing her daughter into the world alone. With the blitz getting into full swing in London, the various family groupings decide Home Place is the best location to hunker down and wait out the war.
    Most of the novel is told from the points of view of the three daughters: Louise, Polly and Clary who are growing up. Polly has to come to terms with her mother's possibly fatal illness, an illness she is not supposed to know about. Clary continues to hope against hope, but has matured enough to befriend Zoe and help out with baby Juliet.
    Louise wins a place at a drama school and her parents allow her a year to make real her dream of acting, otherwise she is doomed to a sensible office job. She experiences miserable digs that are a stark contract to the comfortable life she leads at home - the young actors are half starved and have no heating throughout the winter.
    Louise is probably one of the more interesting characters in the book as she is determined to experience life and avails herself of every opportunity. Even her friends are interesting, particularly Stella, who comes from a family of artistic and intellectual London Jews.  Louise meets a much older man she is attracted to, the portrait painter Michael Hadleigh, but to contemplate marriage at her age will surely put an end to her theatrical aspirations.
   For many characters though, Marking Time is just that, a book about waiting. Like the first book, it has some very funny moments with the younger Cazalets amid the more poignant ones: Rachel's growing love for her friend Sid, Sybil's illness and the arrival of Archie, Rupert's art school friend. Closing with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, the series is set for cranking up the tension as the war grinds into its more decisive phases.
    Howard is a master at recreating the period through her intimately-portrayed characters and realistic dialogue. Each character has their own version of the war, their own private anguishes, but brought together they treat the reader to a very detailed picture of what the war was like for civilians in England at the time.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I was rather pleasantly surprised to discover that Elizabeth Jane Howard had written a fifth book in the Cazalet series. With All Change just coming out, I decided to revisit the earlier books, thinking I'll just give The Light Years a quick glance through before getting stuck into the new book. However no sooner had I opened The Light Years up on page one than I was completely immersed in the lives of an English extended family over two summers just before World War Two. I just had to read on.
    The Cazalets are a family of three brothers: Hugh and Edward, who came through World War One, and their younger brother Rupert, who was too young to enlist. Their parents, the Brig and the Duchy, live at Home Place, a rambling country house in Sussex. The Cazalets' wealth is based on the timber industry with Hugh and Edward working for the family firm. Rupert has avoided joining them because he aims to make painting his living and teaches art to support his family.
    There is a huge cast of characters, helpfully outlined in a family tree at the start of the book, plus a list of the relatives and servants that make up the different family households. It's a bit like a Tolstoy novel really, with the story jumping from person to person and war looming in the background. While some big things do happen - there's infidelity, children planning to run away from home, unrequited love and unexpected pregnancies - it is the little dramas that make the story interesting and also explain such a lot about what life was like at the time.
    The children are particularly interesting, often left out of the loop when adults discuss a possible war, yet they are amazingly perceptive and entertaining. The older children - particularly Polly, Louise and Christopher have to deal with some pretty big issues. Polly, Hugh's daughter, becomes particularly worried about the likelihood of war but can't share her fears; Edward's daughter Louise wants desperately to be an actress and feels uncomfortable around her father; Christopher, her cousin has had a terrible time at his school, vows to run away and should there come a war will be a conscientious objector.
    The young children, self-important Neville and outspoken Lydia add some hilarious dialogue. The servants also get a look in with a budding romance between the widowed cook, Mrs Cripps, and Tonbridge, the unhappily married chauffeur. And the governess (the girls aren't sent to school!), Miss Milliment, is a terrific creation - in spite of her plain looks and her ancient and often grubby clothing, she has such a fund of erudite knowledge that she soon commands respect from those she converses with.
    The Light Years leaves the reader at the point of Chamberlain having reached a peace agreement with Hitler and everyone breathing a huge sigh of relief that a fragile peace seems likely to continue. It sets the scene perfectly for the next book, Marking Time, and the inevitable announcement that Britain is at war with Germany.

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet is the first novel I discovered by Anne Tyler and I enjoyed it so much that I have devoured everything of hers I've come across ever since. As in many of her books, it features a main character who is a little on the edges of society, in this case, family black sheep, Barnaby Gaitlin.
    Barnaby has a failed marriage behind him and before that a stint at a reform school, having been caught breaking into other people's houses. Unlike his mates who looked for money or alcoholic consumables, Barnaby would sit in people's living rooms and go through photograph albums or pocket small ornaments.
    Being a Gaitlin, there was money to pay off the victims of his crimes but the years following his early misdemeanours have done nothing to earn back the respect of his well-to-do family. He lives in a bedsit, sees his daughter only once a month and works as a manual labourer for Rent-a-back, a company that does odd jobs for the elderly and lonely.
    But maybe it is just that Barnaby hasn't met his 'angel' yet. All the Gaitlin males have encountered an 'angel' who has put them on the right track towards prosperity. Grandfather Gaitlin's angel told him that what women wanted was a model of themselves which they could dress in the outfit that they were to wear that day. The Twin-form launched what was to become the business that made his fortune.
    But Barnaby doesn't seem all that bothered about what his family hope for him. As we know he is insatiably curious about people - he follows a woman at the train station who agrees to deliver a package for a stranger. He becomes so obsessed with her that he strikes up a relationship with her, particularly after she somehow helps him when his ex-wife decides he shouldn't see his daughter Opal any more. Could this Sophia be Barnaby's angel?
    As we wait to find out, we see how much of an angel Barnaby is himself. His long list of clients can be demanding, calling the agency at all hours to clear the snow from driveways, collect groceries or put up Christmas trees to impress visiting grandchildren.
    Tyler spins a terrific yarn about a man trying his best to be a good person yet is held back by his obligations to family and his tendency to disappoint. Her characterisation is nothing short of brilliant - Tyler has a talent for quirky old people and Barnaby, who narrates the story, is a warmly entertaining companion. There is plenty of humour too - Tyler has that knack of being able to write a feel good novel that is also poignant and has a lot to say about family expectations and how society regards success. This isn't the first Anne Tyler novel I have been happy to revisit, and I am sure it won't be the last.