The Cazalet Chronicles – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was always on my radar but what finally put this plan into motion was the reissue of all the five books in new sumptuous covers with the wonderful spine art – when aligned together, the spines form a picture (see the end of this post).I simply loved the books, they made for great comfort reads at a time when I needed it the most (in the recovery period after surgery).

The series, comprising five books, is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London, set around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.

I don’t want to get too much into plot for fear of spoiling the reading experience, but I will touch upon the principal characters and some of the key themes explored in these marvellous books.

THE CAST OF CHARACTERS

William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. When The Light Years opens, his wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens at the time. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.

The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.

The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When The Light Years opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is around 12 years younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.

Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.

Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while the both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from the well-off Rachel and her family.

We are also introduced to Jessica Castle, who is Villy’s sister, and comes down for a month with her children to spend time with Villy and the family at Sussex. Jessica is married to Raymond Castle and they have four kids – Angela (a couple of years elder to Louise), Nora (who is around Louise’s age), Christopher and Judy. Given Raymond’s difficulty in holding on to a job for long, the Castles live a precarious existence financially, and Jessica secretly envies Villy’s more settled life, even if Villy can’t help feeling empty sometimes.

And then there are the children.

In The Light Years, the children are depicted as being absorbed in their own world – a world made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.

But from the second book onwards they start coming on their own and begin developing their own individual personalities. In this regard, Louise, Polly and Clary form the nucleus of the subsequent books taking on the mantle from their parents. Louise has something of the dramatic glamour about her and harbours aspirations of attending drama school and becoming an actress. Clary is not good-looking in the classic sense, although she does have expressive eyes, but she doesn’t care much for her outward appearance. Definitely intelligent, however, Clary displays a flair for writing with ambitions of one day penning a novel. Pretty and elegant, Polly feels a bit rudderless – she envies Louise and Clary for having an idea of what they want, since she is clueless. That said, Polly dreams of having her own home one day although she is vague about whether she plans to stay alone or marry and settle down.

Another key character who makes an entry in Marking Time is Archie Lestrange. Archie is Rupert’s best friend, and at a time when Rupert is away in the Navy fighting on the front, Archie finds refuge in Home Place where he quickly becomes the quintessential confidante of the family.

THEMES AND WRITING

At more than 500 pages each and spread across five books, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace. As a result, each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of each book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the cast of characters, along with a synopsis of the key events in the previous novel.

Some of the key themes covered in these books are marriage, family life, difficulties of war (the uncertainty, stasis, boredom and fear), limited opportunities for women, the indignities of old age, and the sweeping changes after the war, particularly with respect to class and tradition.

As the years roll on, marriages, births, deaths, disappearances, adultery and betrayal punctuate the lives of the Cazalet family depicted with compassion, generosity of spirit and considerable nuance.

In The Light Years, despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel.

Of course, from the second book onwards, the war becomes a hard reality, and the lives of the Cazalets are thrown out of gear as they must adapt to these new, terrifying circumstances. Having actively fought in the trenches in the First World War, Hugh and Edward are spared from active combat in the second war, although Rupert is not that lucky.

Ensconced in Sussex at Home Place for the entirety of the war, the women find themselves in a state of limbo. Louise and her cousin Nora attend a cooking school, while Polly and Clary have to carry on their lessons under their governess Miss Milliment. The Duchy continues to manage the running of the household and arranging the meals, while Villy and Zoe help in the nursing homes in whatever capacity they can. For Polly, Clary and Louise, particularly, the future remains uncertain and marriage does not really seem like an exciting prospect, although that is what they are expected to settle down for eventually. Louise is hell bent on attending drama school and vehemently resists Villy’s advice to sign up for service. Polly and Clary realize that the only option open to them is typing school if they want to secure any kind of job. University education is out of the question, it is a privilege granted to the boys – Teddy and Simon – although ultimately they are also expected to join the family timber firm.

War encompasses the second and the third books of the Cazalet series. The sumptuous country meals tastefully described in The Light Years, pretty much disappear in Marking Time and Confusion as rations and shortages rule the roost. The Dunkirk evacuation, the London Blitz and the continuous air raids keep the country and the Cazalets on the edge. With the eventual Japanese surrender, it’s from the fourth novel onwards that the Cazalets begin looking forward to a change in their lives with a few surprises in store.  

Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature. Against the broader landscape of war and its aftermath, what makes these novels so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…while the main storylines of Louise, Polly and Clary are as interesting as ever, it is also fascinating to read about the other cast of characters and how each of those lives shape up in different ways.  

The first four books were simply wonderful, the fourth (Casting Off) to me was the best of the lot – it was beautifully composed where Howard brilliantly and sensitively conveys the plight of her characters and what is going on in their minds. My only quibble was with the fifth book – All Change. I knew going in that this was the weakest of the lot, and I have to concur. The character development so consistent in the first four books was somehow lacking in the fifth. Also, the portrayal of certain key characters was not in keeping with what was depicted before. The fifth is still highly readable, but I would have been happy if the series had ended at the fourth book as originally envisaged.

In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Cazalet Chronicles are a terrific set of books; a series I cannot recommend highly enough. I am now all set to venture into her standalone novels.

Assembly – Natasha Brown

Assembly is the first novella I read for #NovellasInNovember, a powerful, scathing novella of race, identity, an indictment of the corporate world and a withering statement on the hypocrisy that surrounds the idea of diversity.

Our narrator is a young, black British woman working in a financial firm that involves giving the occasional lectures to younger talent across universities. Intelligent, ambitious and hardworking, she has steadily climbed the corporate ladder, earning her the money and the means to live a comfortable life. And yet a sense of disillusionment and inner conflict is palpable.

For instance, in her public talks with younger students she is ambivalent about championing to them the very career path that she has chosen

What compelled Rach to pursue this career? I knew why I did it. Banks – I understood that they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility. Really, what other industry would have offered me the same chance? Unlike my boyfriend, I didn’t have the prerequisite connections or money to venture into politics. The financial industry was the only viable route upwards. I’d traded in my life for a sliver of middle-class comfort. For a future. My parents and grandparents had no such opportunities; I felt I could hardly waste mine. Yet, it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent.

Meanwhile, our narrator is in a relationship with a white man, born of wealthy parents of a privileged background. As his latest ‘girlfriend’, our narrator is invited to a weekend party at the family estate, a prospect that she does not much savour.  She bitingly points out how her partner has had it easy in life, unaware of the sacrifices involved in ascending the social ladder and being accepted.

There is a basic physicality to the family’s wealth. The house, these grounds, the staff, art – all things they can touch, inhabit, live on. And the family genealogy; all the documents, photographs. Books! A curated history. I press my palm against the rough bark of a tree trunk and look up at its branches. Cool and leafy, the air here tastes like possibility. Imagine growing up amongst this. The son, of course, insists the best things in life are free. All this was, is, free to him. The school-children here don’t need artificial inspiration from people like me. They take chances, pursue dreams, risk climbing out to the highest, furthest limb. They reach out – knowing the ground beneath is soil, soft grass and dandelions.

Interwoven with these storylines is a medical diagnosis that she can’t ignore, a tough decision looming on the horizon, the implications of which she keeps hidden from her partner.

Through these various vantage points, Assembly explores the themes of race and class, the notions of success and the desire to take control of your own life and shape up your own narrative.

Our narrator, particularly, makes stinging remarks when exposing the hypocrisies of so-called liberals, who harp about diversity to project themselves as ‘inclusive’ individuals, when the hard truth is just the very opposite. For instance, her latest promotion at the firm seems to be a result of not how good she is at her job, but rather more of a strategy to enhance the company’s liberal image. That same attitude is displayed by her boyfriend’s parents. They are courteous and polite to her, she is invited to be a part of family meals, but secretly the parents don’t take her seriously as a woman their son is likely to marry.

Assembly is also about identity and how people of colour are never really accepted into the fabric of society when they have worked just as diligently and paid their taxes just as honestly as their white compatriots. Success is defined by not standing out but blending into the background, invisible and unseen.

The other day, a man called me a fucking n-r. he leaned right into my face and spat out those words. Then, laughing, he just walked away.

You don’t owe anything.

I pay my taxes, each year. Any money that was spent on me: education, healthcare, what – roads? I’ve paid it all back. And then some. Everything now is profit. I am what we’ve always been to the empire: pure, fucking profit. A natural resource to exploit and exploit, denigrate, and exploit. I don’t owe that boy. Or that man. Or those protestors, or the empire, the motherland, anything at all. I don’t owe it my next forty years. I don’t owe it my next fucking minute. What else id left to take? This is it, end of the line.

I am done.

The book has an interesting narrative structure – at times it feels like we are inside the narrator’s mind as she muses on the various facets of her life (her hard-earned path to the summit of her career, her shaky relationship and so on); at other times the story has an essayistic feel with bit-sized, acid-fuelled commentaries on Britain’s colonial past and its terrible legacy of slavery. Then there is one section barely running into two pages, which alternatively lists various attributes associated with black and white.

Natasha Brown’s prose is cool and clipped, stripped off any embellishments, hard and glinting like a diamond. Armed with a new-found clarity on how she wants to chart out her own fate and not kowtow to accepted norms, the novella quickly hurtles towards a powerful climax.

Burntcoat – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is one of my favourite contemporary authors. No one composes short stories as exquisitely as she does. Indeed, she has become the first author to win the BBC National Short Story Award twice, with judges describing her as a virtuoso of the form.

She has now released three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero and Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

As far as the novels go, I’ve only read two – Haweswater (excellent) and The Wolf Border (good). So, I was pretty excited to know that she had a new novel coming out this year. Did Burntcoat, then, live up to my high expectations?

Those who tell stories survive.

Thus begins Burntcoat, the first virus novel I’ve read published in the pandemic period; a melancholic, compelling novel about passion, creativity, death and disease.

Edith Harkness, in her late fifties, is a renowned sculptor residing alone in her home Burntcoat, situated at the industrial edge of the city. At the very beginning, we sense that she is dying – she is in the thick of making various arrangements including a trip to the florist.

As the novel progresses, we are privy to a slew of flashbacks from Edith’s childhood to the time when she embarks on a passionate affair with Halit just before lockdown is imposed. This lockdown is precipitated by the deadly novavirus, which had been wreaking havoc worldwide (pretty much like Covid). There’s a difference though. Hall’s novavirus has the ability to resurface much later in a deadly fashion and explains why Edith’s days are numbered.

Consequently, Edith harks back to the past, where certain critical phases in her life are revealed to the reader layer by layer. We learn of Edith’s bond with her mother Naomi, a woman who survives a brain haemorrhage. But while Naomi does not lose her life, she loses her sense of self, a transformation that Hall expresses beautifully.

The haemorrhage had caused massive damage, and the procedure came with its own penalties. A precise section of bone had been sawn and removed, the pristine vacuum of the organ breached. They’d mended the tissue, clipped the vessel, and the brain’s flow of blood had been redirected. Against all odds, the rupture hadn’t killed her. Naomi would recover, slowly, anatomically, but something fundamental was disrupted by the process of repair – the complex library of thought, memory, emotion, personality they saved her life; they could not save her self.

The marriage disintegrates and Edith chooses to stay with her mother. Their existence is wild, nonconforming and not rooted in society’s perception of normality, they are outsiders and they come to accept it.

Intertwined with this narrative is Edith’s discovery of her vocation as a sculptor, her difficult years in art school, followed by a sojourn with a wood sculptor in Japan, living with his family at their humble abode, learning and absorbing his techniques.

Furthermore, Edith also reminisces on her intense relationship with Halit, a restaurant owner of Turkish origins, years later. As the deadly novavirus rears its ugly head, Halit and Edith hole up at Burntcoat to ride it out. This is a period filled with sex and passion as well as fear and uncertainty. Writing about sex is one of Sarah Hall’s strong points quite evident not only from her short stories (I am thinking about “Evie” from her collection Madame Zero), but also in this novel.

Upstairs I had other names, in your language, begging, sworn before climax. The stove in the bedroom kept us warm. We sat or lay, you unwinding from work, taking off layer after layer, and our forms melted together in the red underworld light. We slept as the flames settled and dies, tucked together like pigeons on a loft, the sleet creeping over the roof, the country waiting. February, with its bare, larval branches. March. Other nations were closing borders, quarantining.

The dominant themes prevalent in Burntcoat, then, are desire, death, illness and creation of art. Hall is great at capturing the terror of illness and its consequences – Edith’s mother suffering brain damage and its debilitating impact on the family unit, and then later when Edith has to assume the frightening role of sole caregiver when the virus penetrates the walls of Burntcoat. Through both these incidents, Hall explores the devastating loss of identity involved when afflicted with grave disease.

Even before symptoms truly arrived, there seemed to be profound change, in the way you moved, or sat – against the wall, staring down, your eyes dumbly asking for something that couldn’t be given. The process of illness is also the dissolution of the self.

Hall has also enticingly described Edith’s work as a sculptor, the creative process of wood sculpting and how Edith struggles with being an outsider in a vocation dominated by men, but where she eventually excels.

While the overall novel is very good, I did have some mixed feelings. First, a central premise was lacking; it seemed the novel was made up of three distinct parts and these parts did not always cohere. From the outset, one got the sense of a tenuous link between all these sections. Second, while I enjoyed the art section (I am partial to any writing on art and its creation), Hall delves into a failed relationship of Edith’s in that period, a story arc I felt to be a tad banal and not really contributing much to the overall narrative.

Third, the rendering of the pandemic on a broader scale somehow felt flat. Perhaps, after the horror and widespread devastation of Covid in reality, the depiction of the pandemic in fiction didn’t really come alive. Where Hall has done a brilliant job though is to portray the anxiety and fear at a personal level, particularly, when Edith is compelled to look after Halit with no outside help possible. These sections are some of the most intense in the book making it a compelling page turner.

There’s no good way to wait for disaster. Redundancy, a hurricane, surgery – the days, the hours before are already afflicted, emptied of true productivity and slippery with fear.

The real highlight of Burntcoat, though, is Sarah Hall’s writing. Her prose is raw, physical and sensual, her use of language striking, her way of expression quite beautiful and uniquely her own. It’s ultimately what makes the novel worth reading.