Army dreamer: Louis de Bernières. Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images
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The great war of whimsy: on Louis de Bernières’s The Dust that Falls from Dreams

As in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières’s subject in this new novel is love and war.

The Dust that Falls from Dreams
Louis de Bernières
Harvill Secker, 513pp, £18.99

This is the first volume of a projected trilogy following the fortunes of Rosie McCosh and her three sisters, who live in a large house in Eltham with their charming father, their ghastly mother and a bevy of servants. The story begins at a coronation party in 1902 when Rosie, the prettiest of the girls, is given a brass curtain ring by the boy next door, Ashbridge Pendennis. “If you keep it, it means we’re engaged,” says Ash, who has perfect manners and a face like Rupert Brooke. “But I’m only 12,” Rosie replies. A few paragraphs later she is even younger. “How wonderful it is to be engaged already, at the age of ten,” she thinks. Whether Rosie is ten or 12 on that fateful day, her devotion to her fiancé never wavers and 13 years later, when Ash is killed in the Great War, she prepares herself for a lifetime of grief.

As in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières’s subject in The Dust that Falls from Dreams is love and war. The events, unfolding through the eyes of the McCosh household, take the form of 107 chapters composed of letters, journal entries, the occasional prayer or poem, and straightforward narrative. Rosie’s devotion to the memory of Ash provides the focus but we also follow the romantic lives of Christabel McCosh, who takes up with a monocle-wearing lesbian artist, and Sophie, who marries an army chaplain called Captain Fairhead. The fourth sister, Ottilie, is sweet on another neighbour called Archie Pitt, but Archie, like his brother Daniel, has eyes only for Rosie. Meanwhile, Millicent the housemaid finds herself magnetically attracted to any male who crosses her path.

Middlebrow novels about family life in wartime are beloved by the British. The remit is one of conservative values and historical detail, and de Bernières is strong on both. Daniel Pitt rides a Henley motorcycle, boys say “Billy-o”, cooks are bossy and carpets are given an annual beating. With the war comes a change in the social landscape: Mr McCosh no longer has a valet and the grocer refuses to be addressed simply as “man”. There are a few unexpected scenes: Captain Fairhead shares a railway carriage with Bertrand Russell, recently out of prison, and the sisters attend a seance at which a piano is flung across the room. This was the age of spiritualism and the girls spend much of their time discussing the afterlife of the lost generation: do the dead go to heaven, or lift furniture? At one point Ash telephones Rosie from beyond the grave and she feels “a cold tremor run up her spine”. The appearance of the supernatural in leafy Surrey is a nice touch, recalling the levity of Latin American magical realism.

The success of the middlebrow, however, depends on the strength of its female characters. Nowhere is this more evident than in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, which cover the same terrain as The Dust that Falls from Dreams, but with greater effect. While Howard’s women have several dimensions, de Bernières’s are endowed with a single characteristic that they display like a waving flag. Rosie is religious, Christabel takes photographs, Mrs McCosh is concerned with etiquette and writing letters to the king, and Sophie, the youngest of the sisters, speaks in a lingo of her own, composed of spoonerisms and neologisms (“anomalous” is confused with “anonymous”, “impeccably” with “impeachably”). There is a French mother who speaks in Franglais, and a well-rouged medium called Madame Valentine who considers herself a fraud. Instead of being kooky and endearing, each of these women is as irritating as a housefly in the afternoon.

The energy of the novel is channelled into the men and the romance of army life. While it is a challenge for the reader to understand the allure of Rosie’s unbending piety, Ash and Daniel are gleaming sex gods composed of boundless loyalty, nobility and courage. Of officer class, Ash chooses to fight in the trenches with his social inferiors; his best friend is a cockney from Walthamstow; should he die, Ash tells Rosie, she must love again. Daniel, whom Rosie fails to love, is an ace pilot who saves dying dogs, helps the homeless, charms the servants and keeps his magnificent war record close to his chest. Rosie’s father is an inventor with a heart of gold, and the saintliness of Captain Fairhead, who spends his war writing thousands of letters to bereaved families, is tempered only by his religious doubt.

Every character is marked by the atrocities of war, but their world remains one of sentiment and whimsy. In one of the more mawkish scenes, Sophie describes “the tiny motes that sparkled in the bright shaft of sunlight” as “the dust that falls from dreams”. ‘‘‘The dust that falls from dreams,’ repeated Fairhead, his voice full of wonder.” He had married, he realised, a “truly original and remarkable woman”.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.