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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Stultifying Narrowness Of The English Middle Class

The Light Years (The Cazalet Chronicle 1) - Elizabeth Jane Howard

The first book in a saga that explores the impact of the changes that overtook Britain in the late twentieth century, The Light Years focuses on an extended upper-middle class family just before the outbreak of World War Two. Elizabeth Jane Howard has an unusual narrative technique in that the point of view is distributed more or less evenly over more than a dozen characters so that the story is brought to us in a series of snippets.

I found this unsatisfying in that no character had ownership of the story and there was no-one to identify with. I imagine, however, that it enables the author to create a richly layered tapestry of plot as the series extends. What I did like about this technique is the opportunity it affords of including the thoughts of the children alongside those of the adults, giving us a more complete picture of the family under her fictional micropscope.

The quality of the writing struck me as uneven. There are parts that seem really rather clunky, almost like formulaic genre-fiction, all tell and no show, but then there are other moments of real insight.

The characters are difficult. I found it hard to really like any of them, except for the lonely, impoverished old governess whose fiancé was killed in the First World War. They are depicted warts-and-all and there are so many warts.

What really makes this book work for me is the sense of period and in particular the evocative description that summons up with such filmic quality a picture of England before the war:

As she opened the front door and stepped into what had been the old cottage garden she was assailed by the heat, by the sound of bees and the motor mower, by honeysuckle and lavender and the nameless old-fashioned climbing rose of ivory peach colour that was thickly wreathed round the porch. The Duchy’s rockery, her latest pride and joy, was blazing with little mats and cushions and sparks of flowers. She turned right and followed the path round the house. On the west side was a steep bank that ended in the tennis court that McAlpine was mowing. He wore his straw hat with a black band, trousers as round as drainpipes, and, in spite of the heat, his jacket. This was because he was in view of the house; he took it off in the vegetable garden. He saw her and stopped, in case she wanted to say anything to him. ‘Lovely day,’ she called and he touched his forehead in acknowledgement.

But alongside such idyllic rural scenes the author doesn't flinch from laying bare the stultifying narrowwness of so many of these middle-class lives, protected as they are by wealth and deference - the women obsessed with their appearance and the men with their importance, all of them so uninformed about the rest of the world. It made me very glad to be alive now.