The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Ordered by my doctor to take a day off and do nothing—best medical advice I've ever received!—I plunged into this book, the first of a series of four books about the Cazalet family. Like Upstairs, Downstairs, and apparently also televised by NPR though I missed it, the Cazalet Chronicle follows the members of a large family and their servants in and around the Home Place where William and Kitty collect their grown sons and their families during the summer holidays.

Patriarch William, known as the Brig to make up for his being too old to serve in the Great War, has handed over more and more of his timber business, importing specialty woods, to sons Edward and Hugh, both wounded in the war, Edward by gas and Hugh losing a hand. The third son, Rupert, was too young to serve. He is a painter who rarely has time to paint, busy teaching art and supporting his young wife and children. This book opens in the summer of 1937 as Europe rolls towards another war.

With each scene, some lasting only a page, some several pages, we change places, moving into the world of another character like a game of musical chairs. Howard uses a close third person point of view, letting us share the character's innermost thoughts and concerns. With subtle touches she makes each come alive, helping us keep straight who the different people are. A few times I had recourse to the character list and family tree in the front of the book, especially with the many children who take a little longer to come into their own, but mostly I could keep them all apart.

Howard has an especially deft hand with the children, managing to draw them without sentimental or hackneyed images; she reminds me of much I'd forgotten about being young. For instance, while confined to her bed with chicken pox young Clary decides to write seven stories, one for each of the deadly sins. She has no trouble finding examples of the first six within herself, but is stymied by lust. Not having any idea what it even means, she consults her cousin Polly who suggests that is might be like “‘a tiger lusting after its prey.'” Another cousin decides to run away from home and prepares by making out long lists of equipment he will need to live in the woods. Until I read that, I'd forgotten about the summer I decided to run away and live in a shallow cave I'd discovered near Lake Roland.

This is not a costume drama but a psychological one. So completely is each person realised that I found myself absorbed by even the most commonplace worries: a boy afraid of going off to school, a wife fearing that her husband is unfaithful, a teenaged girl revealing her first crush, an elderly governess counting over her meager resources. Trivial as they may seem compared to the threat of war, such worries are real enough to those suffering them, and it is a testament to the quality of the writing that they are to me as well. One amazing dinner scene late in the book gives us the family sitting around the table conversing but each one keeping silent about what is really on his or her mind, what worry, what fear. By that time we know them well enough to know what lies behind each small gesture.

I can't wait to read the next three books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>