Review: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I hadn’t heard of this novel, until a friend included it in her favourite reads of the last year. It’s the eve of the Second World War in England, but life mostly continues as if nothing is happening. The Light Years begins with two servants, Phyllis and Edna, waking to start their daily duties at a townhouse in London. This is our introduction to the home of Edward and Viola Cazalet and their children Louise (14), Teddy (13) and Lydia (6). The story quickly widens to include the three other Cazalets – Hugh, who was injured in the First World War, Rachel, who has never married, and Rupert, a schoolmaster with aspirations to be a painter. Head of this dynasty, which made their money in timber, is William, otherwise known as “the Brig”, and his wife, the Duchy.

This is a true ensemble novel, with rapid shifts in perspective. Not only do we spend time with all the children, wives and (in some cases) lovers, but servants and workers, including the wonderfully ugly teacher Miss Milliment, who has a face “like a huge old toad” according to the children. It’s reminiscent of many a story of English class and aristocracy, from Upstairs Downstairs to Downton Abbey, but is much more genial. Even at their worst, these are characters who want to do good (except for the worst character, who is not coincidentally the most superficially charming).

The action begins in 1937, and despite beginning in London, quickly shifts to the Cazalet’s Sussex summer retreat, Home Place. It’s a foreboding year for any story to be set, and indeed the second part of the novel is set in the summer of 1938, as the UK and Europe attempt to resolve the Situation, the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The international tension infiltrates the home: gas masks are fitted and sheds cleared to make way for evacuees. War vets like Hugh are infected once again with the terror of conflict, which passes on to his daughter Polly. Of course, the Situation is resolved with Chamberlain’s infamous act of appeasement – the novel uses hindsight to great effect.

In many ways the family dramas are a metaphor for those happening across the channel. The kids draw battlelines with each other and debate the merits of war and pacifism. The adults reflect the various attitudes of the day, from apathy to outright anti-Semitism. But the metaphor never feels strained or contrived, emerging naturally from the characters. What I liked most about this novel is the way that death lurks on the page, like a rotting piece of fruit included in an otherwise gorgeous Dutch floral painting.

It is a wonderful evocation of time and place, particularly gender politics. The wives – Viola, Sybil and Zoë – struggle with their lot in life, whether it is giving up their careers or the expectations of motherhood and marriage. Rachel Cazalet has done the unthinkable and had a long-time romance with another woman, Sid, whose mother was Jewish.

The writing is full of light and warmth, matching the seaside setting, and Howard is attentive to the shifting moods of the weather, as storms build over the coast on sultry grey afternoons. She is a very skilled writer of vivid scenes; a birth is particularly memorable. I liked most the discussions between characters, as they wrestle with what their responsibilities in a world that is beginning to fall apart. Here’s Sid and Rachel, sitting in a tea shop, waiting for news of Chamberlain’s visit to Germany:

‘Doesn’t it feel very odd to you? Every day we seem to be creeping, slipping into this ghastly nightmare, but we all go on as though nothing much is happening?

‘Well, darling, what else can we do? It isn’t as though we any of us have the slightest power to do anything else.’

‘Do you mean we’ve never had it? Or that we had some, and simply elected the wrong people?’

‘I don’t think we’ve particularly elected the wrong people. I think the general climate is bad: opinion, ignorance, prejudice, complacency…’

It is a conversation eerily similar to those that we’re having today (or perhaps we’ve always had them). Choose your poison: climate change, ecological collapse, war, The Light Years is the perfect novel for a society sleep-walking towards disaster. Or worse, not sleep-walking, but perfectly awake and unable to do anything about it. But somehow it is neither depressing or maudlin, it is defiant and real.

Gay rating: 3/5 for the romance between Rachel and Sid.

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