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23 July 2015

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.

By Frances Wilson

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.

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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”.