book review, Britain, Edwardian age, feminism, First World War, historical fiction, literary fiction, Louis de Bernières, satire, social prejudices, twentieth century
Review: The Dust That Falls from Dreams, by Louis de Bernières
Pantheon, 2015. 511 pp. $28
To his 1939 comic drama The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan added an end note, as if he worried that his audience would miss his all-too-obvious theme: “In the time of your life, live. . . . Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed.”
The Dust That Falls from Dreams reminds me of Saroyan, providing a cast of (mostly) lovable and often hilarious eccentrics. Whether they realize it or not–and someone will eventually tell them–they’re searching for goodness everywhere, which they manage to find with surprising frequency. In other words, The Dust That Falls from Dreams bears only a passing resemblance to real life, though de Bernières has taken pains to re-create the Edwardian era and the First World War in precise detail. What matters most, he plumbs his characters’ inner lives. The apparent divide between the scrupulously accurate everyday and the fairy-dust plot is at once the novel’s charm and chief drawback; the earnestness with which de Bernières tells his tale fails to persuade me that his characters are plausible, much as I’d like to meet them.
That said, it would be churlish to dismiss The Dust That Falls from Dreams as mere fluff, and even if it were only that, it’s a lot of fun. The premise, loose as it is, supposes that the children of three neighboring families in the countryside south of London have formed such a strong attachment that even the First World War can’t shake it–if anything, the bonds become stronger. How that happens, and what tragedies get in the way, make for a wide-ranging narrative that explores social class, love, sex, religious faith, valor, family relations, and a once-established morality uprooted by war. The chapters are short and episodic, a format I dislike, yet de Bernières usually succeeds with it, because his characters carry the day.
There’s Hamilton McCosh, father of four daughters and husband to Mrs. McCosh, a vicious snob, bigot, and altogether impossible woman. “What mortification and inconvenience it was to live in such terror of one’s wife,” he muses, “and to be obliged to stand up to her so often.” The only way he (or anyone else) can get around her is by telling her that a royal personage or duchess has endorsed a particular activity or behavior, in which case it passes muster. Mr. McCosh survives by playing golf, inventing gadgets, and keeping mistresses (though these are hardly mentioned and don’t figure in the story). The four daughters–Rosie, Christabel, Ottilie, and Sophie–are each irrepressible; my favorite is Sophie, whose malapropisms send everyone, this reader included, into hysterical laughter.
De Bernières takes you into all manner of nooks and crannies, whether how to fly a Sopwith Camel, what it was like to clean and maintain an Edwardian house, attend a séance, or talk philosophy with Bertrand Russell during a chance meeting on a train. You also learn what it was like to live and die in the trenches in 1915 or work in a hospital tending the wounded. But the narrative seldom shows the fighting or the chaos of triage as the stretchers are unloaded, only their aftermath, usually recounted by a witness or participant. I believe this is a conscious choice, and that de Bernières wants the reader to focus on the aftermath and effects, described with an eye to the individual, the peculiar, because it’s individuals who matter above all to him.
Where The Dust That Falls from Dreams rubs me wrong lies with Mrs. McCosh and her eldest, Rosie. Mama McCosh abuses people right and left, almost all of whom rush to excuse her. She’s maddeningly funny in her ridiculous social prejudices, but she also causes immense damage. I get that The Dust That Falls from Dreams is about the milk of human kindness, but the narrative squares up to other cruelties without making excuses for them. She, however, gets a pass.
I find Rosie irritating for similar reasons; priggish self-denial is seldom interesting, and she won’t let herself dream of what she’s missing, which makes her even duller. She remains fixated on her fiancé, killed in battle, in a plodding mysticism that surpasses understanding, and her sense of duty threatens to strangle her and everyone else. Since the fiancé was a well-liked, kind, noble-hearted romantic of no particular accomplishment or talent–a beloved nonentity, if you will–I suppose that de Bernières is trying to use the pair to represent the Edwardian age, golden but doomed, irretrievable. But Rosie’s obstinacy, which forbids even any mention of what’s happening, can be tiresome.
Consequently, I think The Dust That Falls from Dreams succeeds best as a discursive, sometimes antic take on its subject that delivers its most serious impact when, paradoxically, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.