The Light Years (Volume 1 of the Cazalet Chronicles), by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This book tells the story of members of the Cazalet family and their entourage in the last couple of years before WW2. The family is wealthy, owning a timber importing business, and large - there must be nearly twenty of them representing three generations. There are also numerous servants, nannies, etc. to keep track of.

The book doesn't concentrate on any one person in particular, but switches perspective between all the characters, and - what I found particularly impressive - treats each one as seriously as the next. This includes children and servants. So when talking about one of the children for example, there's no sense that the problems they're facing are any less important than those of the grown-ups.

Because there's such a large cast, and because there are only three "chapters" in the book, it was initially a bit hard to work out what was going on - especially when a section about one character finishes and another begins with no audio equivalent of a row of asterisks to tell you that the scene is changing. The printed version of the book contains a family tree as well as a dramatis personae: once I had a copy of that it was easier. However, it wasn't long before I felt I got to know the characters well and didn't need it any more.

In noticeable contrast to Brideshead Revisited, which is set in a similar period and portrays a not dissimilar section of society, the characters here were easy to like and sympathise with. And they seem very real. About half way through the book there is a wonderful paragraph "Rupert remembered it as the summer in which... Polly remembered as the summer when...", and each of the memories described seems to fit just right, given what we know by then of the characters.

Because the book isn't about any one person in particular, it's hard to pick highlights, but a couple of the things that stick in my mind are the death of one of the pet cats, the story of Miss Milliment (sp?), who is the childens' governess, and the beginnings of something unpleasant in Edward's relationship with his eldest daughter. It will be interesting to see how these last two stories develop in subsequent volumes.

From a historical perspective, it's interesting to see how people reacted to the threat of war - especially since so many of them had been involved in the previous conflict. The book ends as Chamberlain delivers his "Peace for our Time" speech, and has the family in high spirits as they believe that there won't in fact be a war. There are three more books in the sequence though, so it'll be interesting to see how they get on as war becomes a reality.

Volume two is on order at the library, but unfortunately it hasn't arrived yet...

Completed : 29-Sep-2003 (audiobook)

[nickoh] [2003 books] [books homepage]