The Dust That Falls From Dreams by Louis de Bernières
There are many books set during the years of the First World War and the Second World War, and the years between and after, when so many were affected by the death and depravation of war. These were times of high drama, desperate times for the men fighting and desperate for those waiting at home – and for those whose loved ones never returned.
Louis De Bernières has set his most recent novel The Dust That Falls From Dreams in the days before, during and after the First World War. In these idyllic days of the very early 1900’s, before the Great War, we meet a group of close neighbours. The McCosh family of girls, and the Pendennis and Pitt families, all boys. All living comfortably in the English countryside, the children are playmates now and will perhaps be appropriate marital partners when they come of age.
Certainly Rosie McCosh expects that she and Ash Pendennis will marry. Even when war comes and Ash leaves to fight they expect to be re-united when it is all over. When he does not return it is the end of Rosie’s dreams and expectations – even though another attempts to win her love. That first love is the only one she is able accept even if it means she will give up all else unless she can find a way of saying goodbye to a dead man.
Many who grew up in the years following the Second World War remember a photograph in our home, or the home of our grandparents, of a young man in uniform who did not return from war. For my family it was my mother’s eldest brother, my Uncle Vaughan, killed in Italy. Though I never met him, he was part of our lives, the dead uncle who was as much there as all the others who did return, perhaps more so. Of course he was the perfect one, as is Ash Pendennis for those who loved him. And they will always grieve, his parents, his siblings, and his friends – as other families do for so many others. The death of so many men in those two world wars has continued to haunt writers and readers ever since.
The McCosh family is a lovely and eccentric clan, at home in the Grampians, their father Hamilton is an inventor of many items – some useful and successful, some not so much. He is devoted to his family, though it appears he has more than one mistress on the side, he supports his very odd wife regardless, and treasures his home. The girls - Rosie, Ottilie, Christabel and Sophie are all just waiting for marriage and life to begin. Unfortunately, for these girls and so many others, the First World War changes the game. Some will lose those they love, and so many men will have perished that few are left for the marriage market.
The wartime experiences of the boys who die, and those who live, is harrowing. The grief that follows, for the girls and the parents, seems to be never ending. Those who do return are haunted by what they have seen and lived with for so long – some are able to make a life, others are unable to see a future in a world at peace.
This is a novel that explores the time, the place, and the lives of those who lived it – some turning to religion, others to spiritualism in an attempt to manage their loss. The world at large is also changing as social structures shift and women take more of a place in the world outside the home.
I first read Louis De Bernières in 1994 when his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was published and his Canadian publishers representative introduced him to me – saying that book would be one of the best I’d ever read. He was absolutely right, I re-read it a few years ago and was once again swept away in a magnificent story. Nothing else he has written, in my opinion, has been quite as good until now.
The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a big sweeping story of people who are affected by all that life brings and takes, the big and the small tragedies, and the day-to-day concerns of all of us. A full cast of characters from all walks of life, tell the story from the perspectives of many. This is a war story, a love story and an altogether very satisfying novel from a writer at the top of his game.