The Dust that Falls from Dreams
The beginning of the novel is somewhat ominously familiar: a perfect English setting in the early years of the 20th century, which is utterly ruined by the onset of the Great War. Rosie McCosh and Ashbridge Pendennis (a native of Baltimore) were childhood sweethearts. Ashbridge joins up to do his bit, and you know what happens; very shortly, it ends with his foul-smelling possessions and mud-stained kit being returned to his bereft mother and desperate fiancée. The grieving Rosie finds consolation in her Christianity and becomes a VAD, helping the wounded at the enormous Netley hospital. Her three sisters also find various war work, and the main body of the story is set after the conclusion of the war, with Rosie and her sisters living near London, with their increasingly eccentric mother and kindly father. The incapacitating effect the war had on the soldiers and pilots as they tried to return to the normality of civilian life, with their subsequent relationships and employment back in England, is also illustrated through the marriages that the sisters make.
The story is narrated via a congenial gallimaufry of short chapters, starting off in a combination of first and third person, and then moving to just third person, with frequent forays into correspondence. For a writer with de Bernières’ reputation, at times the prose and delivery is a little wooden, the pace is almost procedural. The story, too, is an unusual mixture of intimate tragedy, frequent horror and a sort of bouncy, surreal humour – often all mixed up in one short chapter. But it is novel that engages the reader and flows along pleasantly enough. The conclusion leaves various loose ends, strongly suggesting that a sequel is in the cards.