The Light Years

by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Featured image for The Light Years

Somehow I have always passed over Elizabeth Jane Howard. I think I may have picked up one of her books many moons ago and found it unreadable, I’m not quite sure. But I was surprised by comments when she died a few months ago that made her sound like she might be my kind of thing after all - so I picked this book up to see how it went. It’s the first in a series following the Cazalet family through the second world war.

The Cazalets are a well off lot - they have a family business in London, the parents are more or less retired to a large house in Sussex where they all decamp for holidays, the children are three brothers, two of whom work for the company and fought in the first world war, their various wives and children aged from six-ish up to mid-teens. The book is under the constant threat of the war beginning, we know where that story goes but the characters don’t. The story constantly switches between characters - I think everyone in the house gets their own page or two at some point, visiting relatives and domestic staff included. It’s more a series of ongoing observations than a narrative as such - I don’t mind multiple viewpoints at all, but this did stretch the device almost to breaking point. My problem wasn’t with the characters who turned up many times, but with the one-off passages through the eyes of someone who barely feature again - I wanted to see them all again.

I’ve gathered there’s a fair amount of autobiography in the Cazalets, certainly the women are more fully formed characters than most of the men, I’d imagine Howard was one of the teenage girls in real life but I might wait until I’ve read the whole series before investigating that further.

Overall I found the book not terribly well balanced but I enjoyed it and reached the end wanting to carry on reading about some of the family at least… which I will do before too long.