You may have noticed I’ve been less on top of posting to my blog than previously. As I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts, life has been a little involved lately with encounters with the health care system and the purchase of a new island home, so I must begin the new year not only with appropriate greetings to my readers wishing you a 2016 filled with all good things–foremost among which would be good books to read–but also with an apology for dilatoriness.
I am still catching up with books that I began last year. I actually read The Dust that Falls from Dreams some weeks ago and found it a not unenjoyable book. I suppose that sentence suggests that I am damning with faint praise. I’m not. It’s just that in many ways I found the novel to be a somewhat muted work suffused with melancholy. The novel focuses on the experience of those who survived the conflagration of 1914-1918 concentrating not so much on the experience of those who fought and survived the trenches but on the effect on those who did indeed attempt to “keep the home fires burning,” especially the women who lost brothers, lovers, and husbands, that generation of women many of whom never married and were designated “the surplus two million.”
de Bernières dedicates the novel to the memory of his grandmother’s first fiancé “if not for . . . [whose] death,” he “ would have had no life” and prefaces the work with “The Lad Out There,” a poem by Mary Webb. Then he begins with “the day that Daniel vaulted over the wall” (1), not long after the death of Queen Victoria.
The Dust that Falls from Dreams follows the lives of the McCosh, Pendennis, and Pitt families who in 1902 live side by side on Court Road, Eltham. The novel ends in the early twenties in Ceylon. Through his observations of the intertwined lives of the three families over this twenty or so year period, de Bernières gives us an opportunity to consider just how the first world war changed things on the personal and social level as well as politically.
It’s a truism to comment that things were never the same after the war, and much has been written about the Edwardian age being the last golden moments of a particular way of living. But for some, it wasn’t a particularly wonderful way of living with its pressures to keep up appearances, necessary hypocrisies, and its dependence on often exploited servants. For many, particularly women, the First World War offered a kind of liberation, a sense of freedom, an opportunity for autonomy that hitherto they had not experienced, and in many ways, The Dust that Falls from Dreams is a story about women: mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, wives.
It is also an exercise in point of view. The narrative shifts among differing points of view and among tenses. Often the chapters, and I use the term chapters rather then sections somewhat advisedly, are very short. Sometimes the narrative is moved forward through correspondence. This fragmentation underscores how we are forced to construct the linear narrative of historical record. We cannot know everything. We have to examine the fragments and decipher the coherent narrative we accept as historical truth. While there are certain challenges in constructing the story of historical events, how much more challenging is the appreciation of emotional and psychological truth, both for others and for ourselves.
Today, we have possibly more understanding of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome than did those who experienced 1914-18 and the aftermath. We have more experience of survivor guilt. de Bernières gives us an opportunity to look at past events through the lens of our own experience and knowledge. He creates sympathetic, recognisable characters, and we care about what happens to them and understand their dilemmas.
The novel ends on a somewhat optimistic note, but our knowledge of our past, the characters’ future, leaves us with that feeling of melancholy I noted earlier in this review. We know what is to come. However, this note of melancholy is lightened by de Bernières’ gentle humour. At times, the reader is very much aware of the voice of the narrator commenting upon what he tells. At these moments, one feels de Bernières is a direct descendant of Fielding or Dickens. However, his characterization is perhaps more nuanced, more subtle, less satirical than theirs. At times, too, he seems a very post-modern writer. Perhaps because of its subject matter and because of its construction, I often found myself comparing The Dust that Falls from Dreams with Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. Certainly, if I were still teaching, I would be very tempted to put these books together in a reading list.
As I said, The Dust that Falls from Dreams is “a not unenjoyable book”; indeed, its subtlety, empathy, and insight make it a very worthwhile book.