I go back a bit with Louis de Bernières. Well, I say that – like most I started reading him thanks to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – the first few lines of which were used as discussion point in an A-level English class in – I’d guess – ’97. The perfectly self-contained opening chapter, a beautifully written piece of charming prose, a (what I know now to be) typical de Bernières style light-hearted slice-of-life scene setter with a fantastic description of an inner ear as “an aural orifice more dank, be-lichened, and stalagmitic even than the Drogarati cave”.
I took the print outs containing that first chapter (Dr Iannis Commences his History and is Frustrated) home, passed it to my father and the book was soon in our home and passed into my hands following his. It’s a novel well-known, commented upon, discussed and dissected. As such I won’t here.
There followed the discovery of and lapping up of de Bernières’ South American Trilogy, earlier novellas and plays, the stop-gap Red Dog and, my personal favourite Birds Without Wings.
Birds Without Wings arrived some ten years after the publication of de Bernières’ previous novel. But he isn’t a writer of small books; his novels are of epic proportion and scope.
It’s not too surprising, then, that The Dust That Falls From Dreams arrived another ten years after the publication of Birds... Not that he was idle. Between times there was A Partisan’s Daughter a (somewhat smaller though nonetheless impressive) novel set in more contemporary times and familiar locales and, in 2009, Notwithstanding – a charming, if non-consequential collection of semi-linked short stories all set in an English village of a certain southern England type and charm, populated by characters of a particular eccentricity.
Perhaps, in hindsight, those stories within Notwithstanding were perhaps something of an exercise. I’m inclined to see them as de Bernières – known for novels set in Greece, Latin America and Turkey – setting out his stall in ‘middle England’, gaining confidence in the styles and character types that would populate his next saga for, as we’re now aware, The Dust That Falls From Dreams is the first of a planned trilogy.
And so, to it.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams is every bit the opus I’ve been waiting for as a fan of de Bernières. Yes, some will complain that he’s switched a setting like Cephalonia or Cochadebajo de los Gatos for Kent, but arseholes to them. This is a novel of epic proportions and every bit as “de Bernières” as his previous five “big” novels.
Kicking off with death of Queen Victoria and the commencement of the Edwardian era, we’re introduced to the McCosh family as they hold a belated coronation party with their neighbours. With a sudden time-jump we’re off to the Georgian era and slap bang on the doorstep of the First World War.
Of all the writers to task themselves with chronicling this most heinous of periods, the upheaval and destruction it wrought, there are few who could do so as well as de Bernières (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is, of course, another exemplary example) – bringing all too real the events both home and abroad that bought an end to an era and threw individuals into a torrid world where the sense of the individual was lost.
In The Dust That Falls From Dreams de Bernières is at his best. The plot and author play with our fears and guesses and – as those familiar with the author will expect – deliver both uproariously funny and uplifting moments with one chapter before just as skilfully delivering gut-wrenching emotional blows to the heart in the next (this is the Great War, after all). I won’t dwell and deliver spoilers as to who de Bernières casts asunder but will say I felt the final one, unrelated to any ‘cast’ member was a little uneccessary and particularly crushing, especially after the soul hitting account of the Folkestone bombings. Though, in hindsight, this too shows the author’s mastery at engaging a reader and rendering you completely spellbound.
The McCosh girls’ visit to a local medium and the scenes that unfold add a welcome touch of the fantastical, hearkening back to the author’s Latin American Trilogy, and well-chosen historical references help set a thoroughly well realised setting in both time and place, home and abroad.
At times the characters could perhaps be considered a little two-dimensional (though I don’t recall too many layers being attributed to Don Emmanuel) but this is the start of a trilogy and I have little doubt that as the whole saga of the McCosh family unfolds in de Bernières’ magnificent style, all will become fully rounded and developed.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a saga that encompasses three families at one of the most dramatic times the World faced. It deals with a vast array of subjects beyond the core of love and death, picking up the politics of class and gender, religion and industrialisation as it goes.
While not quite up there with Birds Without Wings this may well be the start of something amazing as the saga continues and should well be considered a fantastic novel in its own right. I await the next instalment with high expectations.
On a side note; why do we get lumped with such a cack cover image in the UK compared to the more attractive cover design they get in US?