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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit