Tag Archives: Family saga

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.

The Path to the Sea by Liz Fenwick

HQ | 2019 (6 June) | 423p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Path to the Sea by Liz FenwickBoskenna is a beautiful house, standing proud on a Cornish cliff, a place of comfort and security for three generations of Trewin women – grandmother Joan, her daughter Diana and Diana’s daughter Lottie. Each of them has spent long periods of time away from the house – and from each other – but they’re always drawn back to it. But now they gather together for a final time because Joan is dying. This is the last chance for Diana to work out her differences with her mother and it’s the only chance Lottie, herself on the run from events in London, has to learn the truth about her family and what happened that terrible August in 1962.

Liz Fenwick writes beautifully. She pours her heart into her novels and their characters and The Path to the Sea is no different. Cornwall is a special place to this author and she fills the novel with its colours, sea air, beauty and wildness. It’s all extremely appealing and this is enhanced in The Path to the Sea by such an intriguing and fascinating story, which is slowly and carefully revealed to us and to the Trewin women.

The narrative is divided between Joan, Diana and Lottie, which means that we move between the present day and the early 1960s when family and friends gather to celebrate the birthday of Diana’s father. Something terrible happens which destroys the relationship between Joan and her daughter, something that has been kept hidden from Lottie. But there are clues in Boskenna, which open up the past to Lottie and remind Diana of a childhood that was filled with love.

There’s something extra and unexpected in The Path to the Sea, which I particularly loved. Much of the novel is set in the early 1960s, the Cold War, and this is when Joan’s character comes to the fore and we realise what an exciting, glamorous daring woman she was, who had dabbled in danger. It’s brilliant stuff and it kept me guessing! And it makes the scenes set in the present day all the more poignant and upsetting as we learn that not all is as it seems.

The Path to the Sea would make the perfect summer holiday read. The Cornish setting is stunning and the structure of the novel – with its three generations of one family – is very effective and involving. It’s luscious, glamorous, tragic, uplifting, with an intriguing puzzle at its heart. Fabulous!

Other review
The Returning Tide

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

Pan | 2019 (30 May) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Summer Queen by Margaret PembertonIt is August 1879 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Queen Victoria has gathered together all of her family for the annual commemoration of the birthday of her late beloved husband Prince Albert. There’s no denying it’s a chore to most but, while the Queen plots alliances and marriages for her grandchildren and their little cousins, those children run free and play in the grounds of the House. And it is there that three of those children make their own alliance: May of Teck, a cousin from a house tainted by scandal and disgrace; Alicky, the daughter of Alice, Victoria’s second daughter who only recently passed away and is so greatly missed; Willy, Victoria’s first grandchild and arguably her favourite. He is much older than May and Alicky but he knows what to say to Alicky who is grieving for her mother and to May who feels that she is an outsider. Willy, too, feels like an outsider due to the withered arm that makes his own mother ashamed of him. Together they form a bond. They take an oath to become Kindred Spirits – should their alliance be broken, calamity will follow.

These three grow up to become Queen Mary of England, Empress of India; Empress Alix of Russia; Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Germany. After many years, these Kindred Spirits will break their oath. War and revolution will tear Europe and Russia apart. Not all of them will survive.

For forty years, The Summer Queen follows the lives and changing fortunes of Queen Victoria’s family as they marry amongst themselves, falling hopelessly in love or, on occasion, into deep enmity. Their marriages and relationships form a web that spreads out across all of Europe and Russia, becoming increasingly entangled as the ‘Royal Mob’, as Victoria called them, multiplies. All of them have pet names, so rarely called by the grand names that they were born with – and, after all, there can be only one Victoria. Their blood relationships are difficult even for them to remember and yet they are impossibly important. Little matters more than royal blood, especially when it flows from Queen Victoria. And yet it carries with it a disease – haemophilia or the bleeding disease – and this takes the life of several and destroys the lives of more.

But while this family carries on its elaborate games, almost believing they’re a normal extended family, they can forget the cost, not just to themselves – heartbreak is the frequent result of forbidden alliances – but to their countries. These are the most powerful people of their time and yet they almost reduce themselves by their use of diminutive names, their parties and their gossip. But by 1914 there isn’t a frantic telegram between cousins that can prevent war or what will happen in Russia.

All of this is brought to life in Margaret Pemberton’s glorious royal saga. And what a wonderful job this author does with what is an extremely complicated tale covering forty years. There are so many people, not of whom use their real names, and it is a challenge at times to remember who is who. There’s a list at the beginning (thank heavens) and there are reminders throughout of relationships, which become ever more complex. But, as the novel progresses, we grow to care very deeply about some of these people, particularly as hindsight warns us what is in store for them. Even Willy is treated with some sympathy. But most of our attention is on May and Alicky. Alicky’s story is relatively well known but there is so much about May that isn’t known and it’s fascinating learning there was far more to her than the photos of a rigidly respectable and formal Queen Mary suggest. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

When all’s said and done, this is a family, albeit a very privileged one. We see their loves and hopes, their jealousies and frustrations, and we feel their losses. This is, particularly in the first half, an often light and frivolous tale as these young people grow up, but there are moments of real sadness and I sobbed my heart out more than once.

I loved the mix of intimate family drama and grand international relations. The two don’t always go together and the conflict in these lives is vividly portrayed. This is a novel that can be enjoyed on several levels and, the more I read, the more I knew I could not put this book down.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Publisher: Mantle
Pages: 600
Year: 2012, Pb 2013
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

The Secret Keeper by Kate MortonReview
Kate Morton is not a novelist that I have read before. However, having been seduced by reviews of her latest, The Secret Keeper, I settled down to enjoy a long and involving story that follows a family mystery backwards and forwards through almost a century of British history. It has a sit up with a shock opening – in 1961 teenager Laurel witnesses a man approach her mother at the gate to their house. She watches as her mother sets down on the ground the baby boy she is carrying, grasping hold of the knife she is about to cut his birthday cake with, and rips it into the chest of the man, killing him. Fifty years later, with her mother now close to death, Oscar-winning actress Laurel is driven by a compulsion to discover the truth behind this act. Why did the man, dismissed by police as a criminal, greet her mother with her name?

The greater part of The Secret Keeper moves between 2011, the year of Laurel’s quest, and 1941, a critical year in the life of her mother, Dorothy. The pages take us back to London during the height of the Blitz when young women such as Dorothy have to make a living in a city that is being ripped apart by night, whole streets and boroughs wiped out by continual bombing. This state of affairs, though, does mean that the rigid class system of the pre-war years is itself taking some blows, allowing Dorothy some freedom to follow her dreams, even as the bombs fall around her. We follow her life in the city, her friends and boyfriend, and meet the people that will dictate the future course of her life, including Vivien who, like Dorothy, has trauma in her life.

In the present day, Laurel, her sisters and brother slowly start to come to terms with the loss of their wonderful and exciting mother, uncovering little clues to the life they wish to hang on to in the secret places of Dorothy’s house. It is clear that for Laurel, and for her brother, their own lives must wait until they can come to terms with what has happened. It would appear to Laurel that her mother is likewise waiting for the peace that this knowledge would bring.

The Secret Keeper gave me a fair amount of angst during the course of the week in which I read it. The writing is beautiful, the characters are elegantly allowed to grow and breathe and the settings (1941 and the Blitz, 1961, 2011 and flashbacks into earlier days) are vividly located. For the first couple of hundred pages I was gripped by it and mesmerised by the atmosphere.

All well and good, but at about halfway through I found the characters increasingly frustrating (and irritating). The exception was Laurel and I would turn the pages longing for a return to the present day and Laurel’s hunt. The issue that had the most dramatic impact on my enjoyment of the novel, though, was that quite early on I had worked out all of the mysteries. From that point on I also found the storyline increasingly frustrating. I was disappointed by the predictability and the slow, slow circle-creeping narrative. Rarely have I urged a book to ‘get on with it!’ quite as much. Beautiful prose it might be but when you have guessed how the story will unfold it does lose its shine. It’s a little thing but I also thought that the ages of Laurel and her sisters were not easy to believe. Bearing in mind that they were all in their 60s and 70s, I found the depiction of sister Daphne as the glamorous TV weather reader eyebrow raising to say the least.

As a result, my appreciation of the novel’s good points – and there are plenty – were unfortunately outweighed by relief at reaching its finish. But it’s worth mentioning that I had to finish it. The Secret Keeper is an addictive read and I can see why so many readers love it even if it failed with me.