So much life left over
Louis de Bernières, Harvill Secker, 2018, ISBN 978-1-911-21562-2, 275pp
Louis de Bernières’ latest novel is an easy and fruitful read. I have enjoyed every one of de Bernières’ novels that I have read; he has published 10. Of particular note are Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) and his Latin American trilogy that consists of The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (1990), Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (1992). This novel confirms de Bernière, at least in my mind, as a wonderfully creative story teller. What I loved about this book was that it is not just one story; there are several strands that are interwoven around the central character, though I think we cannot call him a hero, Daniel Pitt.
The book is set in the period between the early twenties, with the immediate legacy of the First World War, and the very early forties which saw the start of the Second World War. Daniel Pitt is married to Rosie and they are apparently happily ensconced managing a tea plantation in Ceylon. We quickly learn that Rosie married Daniel because the man she really wanted to marry had been killed in the war. One wonders how many women made that choice forced on them by a society that considered that women needed to be married … even if there were no available men. So far so idyllic and, possibly, so formulaic. But the twists and turns of this novel lie partly in the disintegrating relationship between Rosie and Daniel, brought on by the death soon after his birth of their second child and partly in the peculiarity of their various family members. The breakdown of their relationship is exacerbated by Rosie’s insistence that they return to England, and by her high church leanings and prejudices.
We follow the fortunes or otherwise of Rosie’s siblings, her mother and her father and of Daniel’s brother, Archie who had always been hopelessly in love with Rosie. De Bernière is endlessly inventive with his titles and in chapter 7 we meet the amusing named Oily Wragge; the chapter is entitled, in de Bernière’s entertaining way, The Beatitudes of Oily Wragge. Oily works as a gardener-cum-handyman for Rosie’s father. The name, of course, is amusing but Oily and Daniel form a relationship that sees them working on motor bikes in Germany in the 1930s. That relationship is a short story in itself as is the relationship between Rosie’s sister Christabel. Christabel is in a same sex relationship with Gaskell and, unknown of course to Rosie, they use Daniel as a surrogate father. There are so many threads in this book that I was almost relieved when the Second World War broke out and Daniel and Oily had to flee from Germany.
It is odd how different strands of one’s reading come together. De Bernière is, at least to some degree, a student of the Second World War. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during the Italian and German occupation of the Second World War. I have been listening lately to a series of very detailed podcasts on the Second World War by Ray Harris. De Bernière’s description of the Nazification of Germany gave me a précis in a few pages of a couple of hours of Harris’ podcasts (which I would still recommend). I also read recently Stephen Bungay’s brilliant and meticulous The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain (2001) in which I learned of the critical role played by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park. Park, who was a New Zealander, makes a cameo appearance in So much life left over. There was one more intersection with my recent reading. Our friend Oily Wragge tells the story of how he got back into the Army but failed to get back into the 2nd Battalion of The Norfolks. He says, “in 1940 they got captured by the … 2nd Totenkopf Regiment and marched into a field … where there were two heavy machine guns … and not a single [soldier] marched out again, but there were two men who crawled out ... ; The story of those two men is told in a book I bought in Berrima Gaol (as a visitorand not as an inmate) for $2. It is called The Vengeance of Private Pooley and it tells of how one of the two men, Private Pooley, tracked down the responsible German, Fritz Knöchlein, and saw justice done when he was hanged on 28 January 1949. I read a review that described this book as “heartbreaking.” That reviewer clearly had a heartbreak threshold that is lower than mine. I found it humorous, arresting, though-provoking and occasionally sad but not heart-breaking. In many ways it is a feel-good novel; it tells a tale of lives that were lived in some sort of cocoon that assumed that little had changed after the First World War in the face of all the evidence that the world was a very different place in the twenties and thirties than it had been in the early years of the century. But de Bernière is such a good storyteller that I raced through this book in three sittings. And speaking as a man with the attention span of a gnat that is high praise indeed.I am sure that Janice at Moruya Books has a few copies of this left on her shelves. You could do worse that to enter those hallowed portals and snap up a copy of this book.