Louis de Bernières’ previous novel, “The Dust That Falls from Dreams,” was a sweeping, stirring historical epic that charted the fortunes of three families from Kent, England, as the idyllic “golden cocoon” of the Edwardian age was destroyed and replaced by the cataclysmic horrors of the Great War. Its awful title aside, this was a book that succeeded on many levels. Three years on and de Bernières has written a superb sequel, one that has the same impressive scope and emotional intensity as its predecessor — plus an infinitely superior title. “So Much Life Left Over” picks up where that last book left off.
It is the early 1920s, and Daniel, an RAF flying ace, and his wife, Rosie, a wartime nurse, have immigrated to Ceylon to make a fresh start. Far from Europe and no longer in the “penumbra of death,” the pair bring up their young daughter and try to produce a sibling for her.
But after Rosie gives birth to a stillborn child, marital relations become strained. Daniel finds comfort in the arms of Samadara, a Tamil girl who works on his tea plantation. Rosie, “listless in paradise,” insists they pack up and return to England; Daniel, besotted with Samadara, reluctantly acquiesces. However, both soon learn the hard way that the rot has set in and that their change of scene is not enough to recoup lost love.
Although Daniel and Rosie’s unraveling marriage lies at the center of the novel, they are by no means the constant focus. As with other de Bernières books, this one comprises various characters’ points of view and narrative styles. We follow the rest of “The Pals” from the last novel: There is Daniel’s reckless and tormented brother Archie, who has succumbed to drink and “cut himself off from any chance of living with a full heart,” and there are Rosie’s three sisters — a minister’s wife, a lovelorn spinster and a rule-breaking, convention-defying bohemian who has gone from “English rose” to “tropical orchid.”
Rosie’s prim and snobbish mother, Mrs. McCosh, reprises her comic turn (one sparkling scene in which she berates herself for serving a worthy gentleman tea from “the second-best teapot” is pure Jane Austen). And once again de Bernières amplifies the voices of servants, mistresses and sundry hangers-on — in particular, gardener-mechanic Oily Wragge, who faithfully accompanies Daniel to Germany (or “Krautland”) in the 1930s and vividly reports on the worsening political climate and advent of war.
Spanning two decades, this is a busy novel filled with births, deaths, marriages and infidelities. The patchwork of perspectives and interspersed letters and newspaper articles lend color, variety and tonal richness to the proceedings. At the end of it all, it is gratifying to find loose ends and intriguing new directions — life left over — a hopeful sign of a third installment of heart-gladdening and heartbreaking drama.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
So Much Life Left Over
By: Louis de Bernieres.
Publisher: Pantheon, 275 pages, $26.95.