“ Author: Elizabeth Jane Howard / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 05 November 1993 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: The Light Years / ISBN 13: 9780330323154 / ISBN 10: 0330323154 „
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Though I am a mad bookworm since childhood, my husband of four years hasn't often seem me get so absorbed in a book that I read most of the night, read in the loo, read while he watches TV and read while I'm eating! He has been most concerned that I have been doing this with a set of four books, which has more or less put me out of circulation for a week. Fortunately for him, unfortunately for me I have devoured all four in the series and am temporarily back in the land of the living. And to think the only reason I got the first part (this one) from the library was because someone on Mastermind chose the Cazalet chronicles as their specialist subject!
On to the review - the Cazalet Chronicles are a set of four novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard and they describe the lives of various members of the Cazalet household as they go through World War II. Unlike other novels of this sort, it starts before the war breaks out and ends well after it is over, giving an insight into what life was like and how much the changed it forever. However, I am getting ahead of myself. The Light Years is the first in the series and covers a period of about two years ending with the announcement that appeasement has worked and war has been averted - at least for now. Because of this setting, politics plays a lesser role in the events and the novel is basically about the different Cazalets and their lives, problems and personalities. While that sounds very boring, it isn't boring in the least. Elizabeth Jane Howard's writing is transparent and before you know it, you're involved in the lives of the characters and absorbed by the historical detail. Another historical novel I read recently - A Suspicion of Murder - put in so much history that the story was submerged. Not so in this novel.
The characters and their stories are fascinating - the Cazalet's are a well off family in the timber business. The owner of the business, the Brig, has a wife (The Duchy), three married sons and an unmarried daughter. The oldest son Edward is a handsome, charming, arrogant, selfish man with an eye for ladies. His wife Villy gave up her career as a ballet dancer when she married and has not found her role as wife and mother fulfilling and is frustrated and unhappy as a result. Her daughter Louise wants to be an actress when she grows up and enjoys lording it over the younger cousins. Villy and Edward also have a son Teddy and another daughter Lydia. The second son Hugh has returned from WWI with a missing hand and recurring headaches. He is a sweet, sensitive man who adores his wife Sybil but struggles to communicate with her due to the polite behavior ingrained in both of them. Sybil loves being a wife and mother though she is partial towards her son Simon, leaving Hugh as the champion and protector of their sensitive daughter Polly. The youngest son is Rupert, whose wife Isabel has died leaving him with a two young children - Clary and Neville. His new wife Zoe is far younger than him, glamorous, selfish and spoilt and not in the least interested in being a stepmother - or a mother. Rupert, who is an artist struggles to care for his family and pamper his wife on an art teachers salary. There are other characters and each of them has a unique story, showcasing different aspects of society and social mores at the time. Oh and the unmarried daughter Rachel is a lesbian though so innocent that she doesn't realize it till the last book! Don't worry it's not a spoiler - it's clear as day to everyone else from Book 1!
Having been born in 1979 in a different country, my knowledge of the Second World War was limited to my history classes and reading Jack Higgins and the like. I never actually gave much thought to what it must have been like living in the England of the time and living through the war without knowing what was coming next. At the end of the novel, the children - some of them anyway - are delighted by the news that there will be no war and go back to life as they know it. The adults and the more sensitive children are not so sure but they are hopeful. As a reader I felt so desperately sorry for them not knowing what was coming. I know it sounds silly but when you study things as history, you don't tend to think of the fact the people living through it didn't know the result of what was happening. They didn't know if there would be a war, how long it would last, what it would involve, whether they would win. This series really brought home to me how it was for real people at the time. Of course, I'm assuming it is accurate social history but the detail and the seamlessness of the writing seems to indicate experience or considerable research. Elizabeth Jane Howard was born in 1923 so she would have been 14-16 during the period this book is set. In fact I think the characters of Louise, Polly and Clary (who end up as central to the series) are based on herself.
Apart from the enjoyment of the stories, I learnt some things that surprised me though perhaps I should have known.
1. There were no fridges in the 30's and 40's! Meat and fish had to be cooked quickly or it would go off. (Incidentally, we get some 'below stairs' stories as well - primarily that of the cook and the chauffeur.)
2. Childbirth had to be endured soundlessly!!!! It was considered 'low' to make a sound. Women had to keep all the 'unpleasant' stuff of childbirth secret from men and children. I was really horrified by this! And of course no one told the women anything so the pain of the first birth was not only a terrible shock, they had to endure the pain silently and pretend there was no pain at all afterwards. Dreadful!
I think I haven't made this novel sound half as interesting as it is but that is perhaps because I am constrained by not being able to talk about the later books in the series (dooyoo wouldn't let me have a 'Cazalet Chronicles' category because it isn't a single product). Suffice to say, I read all 600+ pages in 2 days and ordered the next in the series immediately. And being the Scrooge I am, I rarely buy books anymore, preferring to use the library. My library didn't have the whole series so I bought the last 3 books. Full price. I rest my case.