BOOK REVIEW: De Bernières has so much to say about scars from battle
So Much Life Left Over
Louis de Bernières
Harvill Secker, Penguin Random House
Only accomplished novelists can merge soap opera with dramatic and panoramic historical chronicle, superimpose the chronic drip of life’s constraints with sudden catastrophe and alternate in style and tone from light to the majestic and eye-welling.
Louis de Bernières grew up with stories. “All my life I’ve been a bit of a storyteller. I think I got it from my parents, he says in an interview.
His latest book, So Much Life Left Over — the second in a planned trilogy — continues the saga of the extended McCosh family featured in The Dust That Falls From Dreams (2015).
The sequel picks up in the 1920s. The protagonist, Daniel Pitt, was a World War l air ace; he is reassembling the less-thrilling remnants of civilian life and has emigrated to Ceylon to manage a tea plantation.
Pitt appreciates the exotic environment and the challenge, but his wife, Rosie, is less smitten with life in the colonies. Their marriage was on shaky foundations and deteriorates further when she suffers a tragedy during childbirth. Rosie’s numbness consumes her and, as the cold crush of marital tension builds, Pitt finds warmth in a local Tamil mistress and others, later.
The book has autobiographical tinges. It pays homage to De Bernières’s grandparents, who immigrated to then Ceylon some 80 years ago. Closer to the bone, eight years ago, De Bernières split acrimoniously from his partner.
He outspokenly criticised the UK law’s approach to fathers’ custodial rights and forthrightly admitted to rage and even suicidal feelings at not being allowed to see his children. He secured joint custody only after a protracted legal dispute.
Arguably, his experience permeates the book too strongly, as Rosie pivots from unhappy to conniving — even cruel — as she expands the psychological distance, then separates from Daniel and manipulates their children against him.
De Bernières intended this characterisation but denies it is a personal slight against his ex-partner. “It is more against the system. It’s awful that parents use children as tools in a relationship and the law is blind to this. However, there’s bitterness, perhaps, in the dialogue that “British women are best at being sisters”. And pathos when a priest saves Daniel from suicide, recognising that There is a man who has more to do, who has life left over.”
Thematically, So Much Life Left Over magnifies the webs that bind families and the forces that break them, delving into how life’s losses are adjusted — or the desolation that hits when this is impossible.
War’s destructiveness, and the scars it leaves on individuals, families and communities runs through many of De Bernières’s books, and he feels deeply affected by the sacrifices of war. His famous epic, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) was dedicated to his parents “who in different places and in different ways fought against the Fascists … and were never thanked”. He lost two uncles in combat, and he finds it moving “to walk amongst memorial graveyards, to see all these people younger than 40, lost to war”.
So Much Life Left Over unveils a vast cast of eclectic characters encompassing the lost generation of the 1920s and 1930s, from wanderlust heroes to war-damaged outcasts, warm eccentrics to religious rigids. Juxtaposed with Rosie’s dogmatism is Gaskell, a bohemian artist, adventurer and airwoman, one of the book’s most likeable characters, who might be inspired by the 1930s English female flying pioneer Amy Johnson.
The underclass maids and servants are particularly colourful, conveying emotional turmoil, or the anguish of truth, seen in a different light — from the stoic, underappreciated perspective, hence worthy of enhanced respect or admiration. Especially poignant is the mechanic-cum-gardener with the evocative nomenclature of Oily Wragge, who narrates backdrop perspectives of the McCoshes as well as flashbacks to the horrific Mesopotamian and Anatolian theatres of World War 1, which reverberate from De Bernières’s 2004 book, Birds Without Wings.
This constellation of characters — even incorporating a cameo by Dr Iannis from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — strings out extravagantly, but their tangential stories are intricately and convincingly melded.
The setting is authenticated with a time capsule of iconic props — pre-World War 2 Brough motorcycles, Morris Tourers, and Avro airplanes — and intriguing political and cultural references. The year 1927 is elegantly and adroitly illuminated in a few snapshot paragraphs referencing aviation milestones (Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic), the Greta Garbo silent movie classic Flesh and the Devil, and the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, commemorating the unmarked graves of 55,000 soldiers who died at the Ypres Salient.
The socioeconomic, political, technological and cultural upheaval of the inter-war years meant a jarring transition within the fragile peace. Twenty-first century metamorphoses, and the state of the world, or the future, don’t worry De Bernières unduly. Perhaps surprisingly given the themes of many of his novels — shocks induced by undercurrents of national instability, xenophobia and conflict — he is broadly in favour of Brexit, seeing the “self-serving bureaucracy” of Brussels as a hindrance to smoother globalisation and a cause of hardship witnessed in Greece’s bitter and deep economic austerity.
Another surprise: he’s not overly concerned with climate change. “The Romans made red wine in Britain, so things are not as bad today as we may think. And Holland only exists as a country because of human ingenuity.” Unsurprisingly, the book ends with an immediate, further family disaster at the start of World War 2, spurring Daniel’s return to action. This is the captivating essence of De Bernières’s books: the inexplicable conjure of chance and its intersection with the convulsions of history, creating a sense of the preciousness of time in tumultuous times.
Passages can be whimsical, soaked in syrupy sentimentality; the plot can meander maddeningly; the dialogue can seem dissonant. However, the characters’ humanity shines through, and however exotic the settings, the themes ring close to home. De Bernières enjoys attempting to extend this lyricism into other art forms. He plays the guitar, banjo, the clarinet. And, naturally, the mandolin — expertly enough to have been a member of a touring band, the Acoustic Players. So he was impressed that Nicolas Cage learnt to play it for the 2001 film adaptation of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Initially he disliked Cage’s casting — expecting an Italian actor — and was lukewarm about the film, but now admits “it’s aged rather well”.
He mentions that the film rights for Birds Without Wings were acquired by a Turkish consortium, but so long ago that he’s given up anticipating it on-screen. Which is a pity, because I thought that work, not Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, was his masterpiece. He agrees: “When I finished Birds Without Wings, I felt I could die accomplished.”
Nevertheless, he has since written four books, and the follow-on to So Much Life Left Over is well under way. But even the most gifted storytellers suffer stresses upon their creativity. Usually able to write diligently through the mornings when in the throes of a new tale, he is into the routine of looking after his two young children during the English school holidays. “It’s pointless to try to write. It will probably take another year to finish.”
However long it takes, De Bernières clearly has so much more to say.