22 January 2018

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This fourth novel of five in the Cazalet Chronicles begins as World War II is now in the history books.  Austerity is very much the order of the day and battle scars dot the landscape of England with London bearing a large brunt of the bombing.

     They had been eating a fairly horrible lunch in a café off Leicester Square.  Archie had to go back to his desk but said he'd be through by five; Rupert had the afternoon to himself.  He walked, aimlessly, for about two hours.  The state of London appalled him.  Sandbags, boarded-up windows, dirty buildings, blistering paint - there was a general feeling of dinginess and exhaustion.  People in the streets looked grey and shabby, tired as they stood patiently at bus stops in straggling queues.

War is never funny, but there was one exchange of dialogue when Spam and eggs featured prominently enough to remind me of a scene from a Monty Python skit. 

The childhood antics and charming banter of the younger Cazalets have been replaced by love affairs, insecurity about the way ahead, and seeing their parents' situations through adult eyes.  There are engagements, unplanned pregnancies, more affairs, women navigating their way through the maze of menopause, and some young adults are coming to terms with the realization that life will never be as rosy as when viewed through the lens of their youth.  A few characters have learned to accept their change in economic status, while other characters are dangerously turning a blind eye.

A few scenes from this book were particular charming and have stayed with me.  A character living in a barely functional caravan tucked near woodland and a farm, receives a visitor bringing warmth and cheer.  The sense of calm and relief from the queuing, ration cards, illness and worry.  Another scene involved a young man with more to his story than meets the eye, and then there was a particularly bad fog in London during a car ride home....

      They had almost reached the bottom of the lane and without warning, were surrounded by dense fog.  Rupert slowed down at once as he narrowly missed hitting a parked car.     'It's like the fogs before the war!'     'Can you watch out for the left-hand kerb - and any more parked cars.  Wind your window down.'     'She did, and the acrid smell filled the car.  'I can only see about three or four feet ahead,' she said, 'so do slow down.'     'The occasional street-lights had become dull yellow blurs against which the fog writhed and swirled as though it was being blown upon them, although there seemed to be no wind.  after a few minutes, he pulled up against the kerb.  'I want a fag,' he said.  'And also, I've got to think what would be the best route.  It's going to take us hours to get home.

It would be reasonable to expect the shine to dull ever so slightly by book four of a series, especially when said book is over six hundred pages.  But no...the storytelling and seemingly effortless pacing are a testament to Elizabeth Jane Howard's skill and it's apparent to me now why these books are not easily found in second-hand bookshops. 

And what of my continued lessons in social history?  I had no idea there was such a thing as Phillips' Dental Magnesia - a toothpaste made with Milk of Magnesia to reduce the acids in your mouth.  A wonderful concept but I'm not sure it would have tasted very pleasant.  Also, my image of middle-class women enjoying their breakfast in 1947 involves a pot of tea, toast (with or without jam) and perhaps some sort of egg....but no, apparently Grape-Nuts cereal was a popular choice during this era.  And when one character sets off across the ocean to visit New York in 1947, one British pound equaled five American dollars!  And lastly, there's one aspect of the times that has passed the point of amusement for me - women over fifty are not ineffectual, invisible, or incapable.  When I found out a certain widow was the topic of concern surrounding her ability to care for herself - and not yet sixty...well, incredulous is one word I could use.

On to book five.....

Spring, Regent's Park London by Anne Estelle Rice

7 comments:

  1. I think I might re-read the whole series toward the middle of this year. I do enjoy her writing enormously - I am glad that you do too.

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    1. And around the same time, I'm planning to read Artemis Cooper's bio on EJH. Would it be completely shallow to say that I'm hoping to be as thrilled with her once the veil has been lifted?

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  2. I hope I can get to the series. The era and setting do appeal.

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    1. I hope you can get it once it airs, Mystica. Streaming sites make it easier...fingers crossed!

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  3. I've only read the first two in the series and am afraid it will be hard to jump back in after letting a year pass. But they do look so tempting and pretty sitting on my shelves. I do love the details and the wonderful atmosphere Howard creates - she really makes you feel you are there.

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    1. Don't let the next books collect dust, Anbolyn! I think you would find yourself settling in again in no time...or you can just let the television series do the work for you, once it starts. And you're so right about EJH putting the reader smack dab in the middle of it all. I'm not looking forward to the last page at all!

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  4. I loved this series and I hated for it to end. I've since bought her memoir Slipstream and two stand-alone novels which I've yet to read. Maybe it's time to tackle one of them -- I only hope they're as good as the Cazalets.

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