It was some twelve years ago that whilst in southwestern Turkey for the first time, I began to read Louis de Bernières’ ‘Birds Without Wings’ and quickly realized that the fictional village of Eskibahce, where the story was set, was inspired by the ancient community of Kayaköy where I just so happened to be staying at the time. Nothing has ever quite matched the feeling of being so utterly immersed in that brilliant book and so it set in-motion a love affair with de Bernièrnes’ writing that I think will be extremely hard to ever extinguish and this book (and his South American trilogy) have remained amongst my very favourite novels to this day.
So to read a new story by this beloved author of mine comes with its own setbacks from the start. The bar is already high and as much as I try to resist the urge to expect life-changing brilliance (for which I almost feel apologetic to de Bernières or any other author to whom I secretly set such high standards; after all, the higher you fly, the harder you fall), subconsciously I suppose there’s always at least a hope that an author will once again enthrall you in the way they once did.
‘So Much Life Left Over’ follows on from ‘The Dust That Falls From Dreams’ (which, in-turn features some of the characters from ‘Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village’ also). It follows Daniel and Rosie Pitt as they move to Ceylon in the early 1920s, as well as Rosie’s three sisters, as each attempts to carve out a life in the rapidly changing world post-WWI. Daniel and Rosie’s marriage falls apart soon after they suffer the loss of their second child and Daniel has numerous affairs in the months and years following. Archie, Daniel’s brother, is broken and bereft as a result of the war and his unrequited love for Rosie. He descends into alcoholism and a life of near-vagrancy. We also hear from Oily Wragge, the McCosh family gardener, who speaks of the struggle of so many men like him, to build some sort of life after having suffered the trauma of the war. One of my favourite characters, Oily Wragge offers the working-class perspective of the post-war experience and with him, we see some of the depth and nuanced quirkiness so synonymous with de Bernières’ characters.
As for the rest, I was left wanting. What de Bernières has always done so magically is to create a rich and colourful tapestry of characters who weave in and out of the narrative with grace and ease. To read (for instance) one of his South American novels, is to be taken along a long and winding road meeting and re-meeting a Dickensian-like list of characters and to feel invested and swept along by them with enormous depth, despite their vast number. On this occasion, the author achieved the breadth of characters but alas, for me, not the depth. The story seemed to skim the themes to which it alludes. For instance, Rosie and Daniel’s disintegrating marriage was a multi-faceted and complex thing; the loss of a child alone is commonly known to end a marriage but this was barely explored and indeed, we hear little from Rosie at all. I would also have liked to have heard more about Archie and his immense struggle to create a life in the shadow of trauma but although we see him in passing, we are not allowed the opportunity to go deeper into his particular story.
To be honest, I did become mildly bored with this book. There was never quite enough to enthrall me, yet there were moments of de Bernières sparkle which occasionally shone through and kept me going; his writing was at times, beautifully poetic (Oily Wragge’s lament in Chapter 7 of his experiences in a labour camp are exquisite). Yet it was never quite enough.
As I said though, the bar was set very high and so perhaps it was because of this that I was left disappointed. Perhaps if this had been written by an entirely different author, my reaction to it would not have been quite so tepid.
But I will not give up on De Bernières’ ability to amaze me. After all, we do expect so much from those authors whom we enduringly love. It’s a tough gig. Perhaps I ought to go on holiday again……
So Much Life Left Over is published by Harvill Secker and is available here.
Louis de Bernières
Louis de Bernières is the best-selling author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. His most recent novels are Birds Without Wings and A Partisan’s Daughter.
Reviewed by Anna Jeffery
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