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Notwishstanding by Louis de Bernieres

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Notwithstanding by Louis d Bernieres

I fist read Louis de Bernieres in 1993 when his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was published. The publisher called it “the best book you’ll read this year” – and it was. It may well be one the best books you’ll read any year. After reading Louis de Bernieres new book Notwithstanding I am going to re-read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, anticipating that I will enjoy again it as much as I did 17 years ago.

Notwithstanding is the name of the village at the centre of this book of linked short stories. It is very much the Surrey village where Louis de Bernieres grew up and remembers with nostalgia and pleasure as he thinks of his own boyhood and the characters that made up the fabric of village life.

There is Obidiah Oak, “Jack”, the village “peasant” grimy, spitting and swearing. Villagers meet in the park with their dogs – there are lots of dog stories in this book. One resourceful bachelor believes he can use his dog as a way of meeting eligible spinsters. There is Robert who is famous for the rest of his life after an adventure with a fish. There is Mr. Mac and Mrs. Mac visiting the graveyard, remembering with compassion and regret those who are buried there. These are the days when children had the freedom to scour the countryside, finding adventure and sometimes mischief and danger.

The linked stories in this book are episodes in the lives of the village inhabitants – it is like looking over the garden hedge or peering in the kitchen window. Glimpses of lives – both humorous and heartbreaking – told with wit and wisdom – over a period of a generation or two. We read about a time when the village was a whole little world - a time when the telephone first came and there were only three numbers to dial - to a time when we see the homes of the original settlers being bought up as country houses for the city folk – and the villagers are moving to bigger towns to rent apartments and find work.

This is the sort of book that makes it clear to the reader what a very good writer this author is – the observations are described to us in such a way that we feel that we are there. We see the life and emotions of an elderly woman living alone with her animals, and her memories are told with such understanding and empathy that we too feel them. We share the experiences of a boy and the bird he rescues and befriends – and share his grief at his loss.

There is more pleasure in living in these stories than grief, as Louis de Bernieres takes us all back to the time of his childhood, to days that do seem idyllic now, in those post war years when everything seemed possible and life was mostly good.

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