SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER: A NOVEL
By Louis De Bernieres
Pantheon Books, $26.95, 288 pages
A million British combatants died in World War I, and hundreds of thousands of survivors were disabled or shell-shocked. As a daring pilot of the world’s first military airplanes, Daniel Pitt, hero of Louis de Bernieres‘ latest novel, confidently expected that he too would die. But the title “So Much Life Left Over” alerts us that he lives to tussle with life in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The novel begins with Daniel and his wartime friend, Hugh, firing at a row of cans to see who can be the first to put a bullet through every one. They are in the “beautiful and surprising land of Ceylon” (now Sri Lanka) suffering from “the accidie of not being at war” because they are missing “the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War in spite of its penumbra of death.”
Still, while having “so much life leftover was sometimes hard to cope with,” all is far from gloom. Daniel loves working as a tea planter in Ceylon. He also loves his wife, Rosie, who had been a war nurse. Daniel’s brother, Archie, another war veteran, loves Rosie, too. He would have liked to marry her and have children as Daniel has done, but instead shuts himself off from the possibility of domesticity with somebody else by staying in the army, patrolling the Hindu Kush, and drinking himself to oblivion.
Thinking back on his life, Archie knows “He had become a prisoner, whose cell door has fallen open, but cannot go out into the light of day.” Daniel, whose early experiences were virtually identical, “had emerged with a heart open to the world.”
Such inexplicable differences between people and in their responses to others are central to this novel, which follows Daniel and his circle as they teeter through the years leading up to World War II.
The deft delineation of character is one of Louis de Bernieres‘ strengths. He does not caricature his people by highlighting their quirks, but shows them in action or dealing with inner conflicts. Consequently, the plot is not imposed on them by the exigencies of telling a story, but develops from their personalities and behavior.
For example, the disaster of Daniel and Rosie’s marriage springs from their mismatch. Unlike Daniel, Rosie is not happy person and not nice. On her first appearance she is complaining that Ceylonese workers don’t use the new clinic, and on her next she tells Archie off for shooting wild animals. He is so hurt he walks out.
Daniel is incandescent with rage because Archie is clearly fragile. Worse is to come when Rosie decides she must return to England. She also decides she wants no more children, and in her case that means no more sex, so Daniel looks elsewhere. Where he looks and the work he chooses eventually takes him to Germany in the 1930s.
As Daniel and other characters live through the social and political history of the early 20th century, the author checks all the boxes by describing what was happening, including the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and changes in gender politics and sexual mores in Britain, but his narrative skates the surface rather than digging below it.
One reason for this is that the novel sticks closely with Daniel and how he makes the best of the hand he was given. Commenting on Rosie’s cruel behavior, a friend says, “Daniel didn’t deserve to be treated so badly. A fun-loving man is difficult for a woman to resist, especially when he is compassionate, and as much concerned with your pleasure as he is with his own.”
This is fine as far as it goes, but by drawing Daniel as both a hero and a jolly nice chap, the author sentimentalizes him and demonizes Rosie.
Another reason that events are sketched rather than examined is that the novel is built from 50 short chapters, each packed with vivid descriptions of incidents and encounters, so the pace is fast and the view is not sharply focused but panoramic.
There are pleasures in that panorama, however. Louis de Bernieres writes with elan. His characters are survivors — some at the expense of other people, but most through determination to make the best of life. It’s easy to be on their side, so reading about them is pleasurable, and often amusing.
Readers who enjoyed the author’s bestseller “Corelli’s Mandolin” or the more recent “The Dust That Falls From Dreams,” which also focused on Daniel and his wartime friends, will enjoy “So Much Life Left Over.” And so, too, will those new to Louis de Bernieres‘ work; reading the prequel is not required.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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