Casting off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

casting off

The fourth book in Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, Casting Off continues where the last book left off.  Originally, this was the final book in the series, the fifth only being published eighteen years later. I think that if I was reading this as the last book then I may have had more questions by the end (mainly relating to Louise and Villy), but I think that the other storylines were resolved satisfactorily.

Sometimes you can pick up a book in the middle of a series and read it as a standalone. I doubt that Casting Off would work if you hadn’t read the previous novels though. The family is too vast and so much has happened to them that, in spite of the potted history and family tree at the beginning, I don’t think a casual reader would find it enjoyable. As part of the series though I think this novel did most of what I wanted to.

We pick back up in July 1945. Rupert has just returned from France, years after everyone thought he was dead and months after he could have. Clary, who kept the faith that he was alive, feels that he abandoned them, and his wife Zoe feels guilt over the affair that she had while Rupert was missing (little knowing that the reason he stayed away so long was that he found love himself, in France). Older brother Edward finally comes clean to his wife Villy, and tells her about his mistress.

The daughters are now grown up and provide the main focus of the novel: Louise, still stuck in her loveless marriage; Polly still struggling to get over unrequited love for Archie, Rupert;s good friend; and Clary, embarking upon her own first love affair.

There is so much going on that it is a wonder that Howard manages to corral all of her characters into a format that makes sense. Having the book split into different sections (‘The Girls’, ‘The Wives’) makes it easier to keep a handle on whose point of view we’re looking from, though sometimes I found myself reading several paragraphs without knowing quite which character I was inhabiting which felt a little odd. Also, sometimes as a reader you want to follow a character for longer which isn’t possible with such a huge cast. I found that ‘The Outsiders’ sections were of less interest (apart from Sid – big cheer for her and Rachel finally sorting themselves out!). I’ve never cared much about Miss Milliment and I’d be happy enough if Villy’s sister Jessica and her whole family vanished. As much as I found Raymond’s storyline touching, it added nothing to the piece as a whole and I’d have much preferred Howard to use that space to go back to Louise and her strange marriage to Michael (and the hideous mother in law who was sadly quite quiet in this novel).

Verdict: definitely one for the fans. It ties up most of the ends but I’m glad there’s another book to go

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

gustav

Once upon a time (well, a month or so ago) I was determined to read all of this year’s Baileys shortlisted books before the winner was announced. With five days to go and three of the novels not yet read that is most definitely not going to happen. My failure is tempered by the knowledge that I have had to give over precious reading time to writing – a new novel which I am obsessed with. Nevertheless I had already reserved a couple of the Baileys books from the library so they will not go unread. Rose Tremain’s book attracted me first due to its relative brevity (as well as being due back to the library today).

Set in Switzerland and beginning in 1947 Gustav Perle grows up in a tiny flat in a small town. He lives with his mother, Emilie. His father, a hero says his mother, died when he was a baby. When new boy Anton moves to Gustav’s town, the boys quickly become friends. Anton is a talented pianist, a prodigy he tells Gustav. Emilie doesn’t like Anton visiting their small flat. Anton’s family are Jewish and Emilie tells Gustav that his father died trying to protect the Jews during the war. Tremain cleverly uses Anton’s constantly supportive parents to contrast the indifference that Emilie shows to her son. When Emilie contracts pneumonia and has to be taken to hospital, Gustav is left alone with only a friendly neighbour to help. She tells him he must wash the sheets where his mother wet the bed, to weak to get to the bathroom, and there is a heart-breaking scene where he goes down to the laundry but is too little to reach the light switch and has to leave the sheets there until the next day.

The middle part of the book takes place before Gustav’s birth, the story of how his parents met. This is a bleak novel and so I wasn’t expecting a happy tale, but in some ways I could understand why Emilie had turned out the way she did once I knew what she’d already been through (though she is never portrayed as likeable, rather slightly calculating and self-pitying). The real circumstances around her husband’s death were even more tragic than imagined, though I felt that here the rather Swiss restraint that Tremain employs could have been relaxed. Having become involved with Erich’s predicament I found that his actual death was rather anticlimactic. I don’t think I needed it to be more dramatic in terms of what happens, only I think I wanted more detail. I wanted to be there, and to know his thoughts, rather than finding out about it later, if that makes sense.

This is the sort of novel which is quietly excellent. The prose is perfect and never overwrought. I found the dialogue a little rigid but it fit the style of the novel. Both Gustav and Anton are very restrained and, certainly with Anton, there is the suggestion that if they let go too much then all will be lost. I am full of admiration for this book, but I never quite fell in love with it.