“In the brief golden years of King Edward VII’s reign, Rosie McCosh and her three very different sisters are growing up in an eccentric household in Kent, with their neighbours the Pitt boys on one side and the Pendennis boys on the other. But their days of childhood adventure are shadowed by the approach of war that will engulf them on the cusp of adulthood.
When the boys end up scattered along the Western Front, Rosie faces the challenges of life for those left behind. Confused by her love for two young men – one an infantry soldier and one a flying ace – she has to navigate her way through extraordinary times. Can she, and her sisters, build new lives out of the opportunities and devastations that follow the Great War?” (randomhouse.com.au)
If you’re like me, and have an interest in late 1800’s-early 1900’s England that borders on obsession (or if you just like a well-written story), then you will definitely enjoy Louis de Bernières’ latest novel, The Dust That Falls From Dreams.
The only way I can possibly describe this novel, is that it is like a sweep of a paintbrush with every colour imaginable. Covering all aspects of life before, during, and after World War One, de Bernières paints a picture that is both beautiful and occasionally distressing; and that had me giggling in some parts and crying in others.
I’ll be honest and say I found it a little jumpy at the beginning as it moved between a number of first person narratives, but it settled quickly and read quite nicely; so nicely that I had almost forgotten about the instability of these early chapters. I initially hated the ending, but after I thought about it for a bit, I decided I was actually really happy about it, and I have everything crossed that it might lead to a sequel (please Mr de Bernières!!).
While the overarching themes are love and war, and how the former can survive the latter, there are others touched upon also, most notably religion. In this case there is an interesting contrast between Rosie McCosh, who is almost fanatically rigid in her religious beliefs, and the Reverend Captain Fairhead – a man of the cloth who sees the horrors of the trenches in France, which leads him to question his own beliefs and why any God would allow such atrocities to take place.
For me this wasn’t the typical love and war novel that I’ve read before. In many others (but by no means all), the young men go off to war, while the women stay at home waiting for their sweethearts to return. In this case however, de Bernières uses the McCosh girls to show the important role that women played in the war effort, both as nurses and in a variety of other roles. The women in this novel are very different from those in other novels set in this time period; the introduction of the character Gaskell introduces another dimension to women – and people in general – at the time that is not usually explored.
Another difference to other war novels I’ve read, was the larger focus on the airmen. Usually we see things only from the perspective of the men in the mud of the trenches, and de Bernières shows us this quite vividly. However we also see, through the character of Daniel Pitt, what it was like to be flying over the war as part of the Royal Flying Corps. I don’t think I’d ever had as much of an appreciation for the risk these men took until I went to a WWI Exhibition a couple of months ago (you can read about that here); for not only were they at risk of being shot down by enemy guns, but also of their death being brought about simply due to their aircraft crashing for whatever reason. The aerial aces mentioned – names such as Albert Ball and Edward ‘Mick’ Mannock; names I only learnt this year at the WWI Exhibition – were real figures in the war, giving the novel a sense of reality that I think makes it just that little bit more sad to read.
I wanted so badly to put five stars at the beginning of this review. But unfortunately there’s one thing that caused me to only give four and a half, and it isn’t anything to do with the story. There were some small but to me fairly obvious typos that weren’t picked up during editing (at this point I’m hoping I didn’t miss any typos in this post), and they have made it into print. If this was an uncorrected manuscript I wouldn’t have an issue; but I picked this up in a bookshop. It was a bit disappointing that such a great book by an author like de Bernières would have errors in it. There aren’t lots, and they are sort of grouped so it looks like there’s just been a few pages missed here and there, but it was enough to annoy me. Hopefully these errors are removed for subsequent editions.
Errors aside, this was a truly beautiful book and I can safely say that it’s probably my favourite new release I’ve read this year (my previous one is here). I honestly don’t think this book is for everybody, but it is definitely for me. So if you decide to read it based on what I’ve said, just make sure you do so with the knowledge that this book is basically exactly what I like to read, and as a result I’m heavily biased towards it.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – If you like Louis de Bernières then you should definitely read this.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – I actually really liked all the characters, but for me the stand outs were Daniel Pitt and Sophie McCosh.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – There were so many beautiful moments in this book, and there are about a million little post-it flags hanging out the side of the book to mark them. But this one was definitely a stand out:
“I have Rosie to live for. Told her I was her angel, but really she’s mine. Also knew that if I was killed she’d never have the chance to become disillusioned. She’d never get tired. We’d never have an argument. I’d be young, strong, handsome forever. Would never watch her grow old, either. No plans to die, but it might be a good thing before I let her down. If I die, the vision lives.”