The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Picador Classics | 1990 (this edition 2013) | 554p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardIt is 1937 and the Cazalet households are preparing for their annual return to the family estate of Home Place in Sussex, where life is played out seemingly almost idyllically under the benevolent eyes of William Cazalet (the Brig) and his wife Kitty Barlow, known to everyone as Duchy. Their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, bring their wives and children to stay, while Rachel (the only daughter of the Brig and Duchy) holds the household together, waiting for the time when she can be joined by her close friend Sid.

Hugh and Edward both fought in the Great War and Hugh in particular has paid a heavy price for his service. The war clouds are gathering once more and the whole family waits to hear if Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement will win peace from Hitler. As the country prepares for war – everyone is measured up for a gasmask – Some of the children have nightmares about what war will mean. Edward and Rupert would surely have to fight. But, for now, these are the light years – it’s time to spend a summer together in the countryside while keeping one eye on the future. Everyone, including the children, has their own alliances to forge and battles to fight.

Recently I reached a stage in my reading when I really needed to try something different. You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to crime and psychological thrillers. I’ve also been reading a great deal of historical fiction behind the scenes for the HWA Gold Crown, for which I’m one of the judges. So an escape was needed and Twitter friends suggested the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which were begun in the 1990s. The family saga stretches over five substantial novels and, as I love a good saga, I gratefully dived in.

The Light Years is the first of the five novels and it sets the stage beautifully. The cast of adults, children and servants is vast (happily introduced with both a family tree and a list) and the author takes care to ensure that we spend time with them all. Even a character who plays a minor role is given a little scene or two, or more, which takes us into their world. I particularly enjoyed the time spent with the governess Miss Milliment, whose life couldn’t be more different from those of her pupils. The children are given as much time as their parents, if not more so, and, I’m very glad to say, their voices are realistically and sympathetically done. I’m not a big fan of children in fiction as a whole but I loved Polly, Clary and Louise in particular. The boys are harder to warm to as they’re off mostly, doing their own thing. I suspect they’ll play a bigger role in the later novels.

The novel moves along slowly, following the details of life at a very leisurely pace, interspersed with squabbles, stresses and disappointments, but it’s far from dull. I was completely engrossed. I became addicted to reading this book and always looked forward to picking it up each time. Them I would be immediately transported back to this beautifully crafted and remembered world. But it isn’t all sunshine, buckets and spades, and tea or gin on the lawn. This is real life being presented here and, as such, sometimes it’s unpredictable and utterly shocking. There are a couple of events that made my blood flow cold. Not everyone here is who they seem. There is danger in Eden and it’s not just Hitler who threatens it. And the characters are not at all stereotypes, despite the Upstairs Downstairs feel of some of the novel or the wealth of the characters on their country estate. Rachel, the sole daughter of the Brig and Duchy, challenges attitudes of the day in some significant ways, and the grief it causes her as she lives a life of compromise and duty is agonising.

There’s a lot going on in this book and I don’t want to go into it in any detail but I must say a few words about my favourite character – Zoë, the second wife of the youngest son, Rupert, and stepmother to his children, including the isolated Clary. Zoë appears on the surface to be empty-headed, cold and obsessed with her own beauty, with little time for the youngsters in her care. But she grows through the novel more than anyone else and I really can’t wait to see what becomes of her as she rises to meet and overcome serious and horrible obstacles. Her relationship with Clary is so beautifully explored. And, as with all of the relationships in the book, they’re given time to grow.

As soon as I started The Light Years I knew I needed more and so I instantly bought the whole series and I’m already well into the second novel, Marking Time, which takes us to September 1939 and the outbreak of war. I am so pleased to have been led to these novels and I’m looking forward to spending time with them all over the months to come. The Light Years is an absolute delight but, as Hilary Mantel commented, this is a novel (and series) far less cosy than first appears.

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