“The Light Years” by Elizabeth Jane Howard – review

I’m not entirely sure what it was that drew me to this book.  It might have been the half-remembered flashes of a long gone television adaptation, or maybe it was the name Cazalet on the cover that jumped out at me, it being one of those literary names that you know you’ve vaguely heard of even if you’ve never read the book.  My decision may even have been swayed by the pretty floral cover design.  Either way I’m delighted because I’ve discovered a new series of books (5 in all) I can really get my teeth into.

I will say straight off, though, I can imagine “The Light Years” may not instantly appeal to everyone.  Firstly, although it was only published in 1990 it does have quite an old-fashioned feel to it; the 1930s setting is definitely reflected in the style of prose.  Secondly, this is a world of vast country houses, prep schools, chauffeurs and croquet on the lawn, and at first I wasn’t convinced I was going to be able to take to any of these characters who had everything money could buy and then some.  It becomes apparent as the story develops, however, that despite their privileged position in society almost none of them are particularly happy.  True, an eccentric patriarch with a tendency to implement grand building schemes on his estate at the drop of a hat and the inconvenience of extra guests turning up for a dinner party are undoubtedly very minor dramas in the grand scheme of things, but these are outweighed by some truly devastating events – affairs, disintegrating marriages, even death – that only serve to highlight how even the most materially blessed are ultimately subjected to the same emotional pain as everyone else.

This novel has a pretty hefty cast (luckily a family tree is provided at the beginning!).  However, unusually for an ensemble piece on this scale, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of who was who and how they fitted into the family.  Juggling vast numbers of characters is a real skill; I find that often interrelationships can become confusing and the effort required to hold them all in my head spoils the flow of the novel, or that there are some characters whose storylines fail to sustain my interest.  Neither of those things is true in this case.  The Cazalet family is 17 strong, yet all get a remarkably equal share of the action and there wasn’t a redundant or dull character among them.  What I felt Elizabeth Jane Howard did exceptionally well was finding the voices of the children.  They get as much dialogue, and therefore as much input into the story, as their adult relatives, and as a result we get to see another side to events as they unfold, viewed as they are with naivety, childish humour or sometimes fear.

As the book draws to a close, the prospect of another world war is looming on the horizon.  The two eldest Cazalet brothers bear the physical and psychological scars of their time in the trenches of World War I, and the family’s sickening dread of having to go through the same thing all over again casts an ever darkening shadow over the superficially idyllic days.  Having become incredibly attached to this family I am now gasping to find out what happens to them over the coming books.  If this one is anything to go by, the author doesn’t shy away from tragedy so I imagine a few heartbreaks will be on the cards.  If you want to get wrapped up in a multi-stranded, traditional family saga then this comes highly recommended.

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