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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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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