Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
Louis de Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams has one of the most beautiful and touching dedications that I have ever seen:
In memory of my grandmother’s first fiance,
Pte Howell Ashbridge Godby HAC
Died of wounds received at Kemmel 19/2/15
If not for his death, I would have had no life.
If you can keep that dedication in your head while you are reading this book, I suspect that it will be a more meaningful read for you.
The McCosh sisters, Christabel, Ottilie, Rosie and Sophie, live an idyllic existence in a large house in a suburb of London. Their father makes a good living, their mother worships the royal family and they have a bevy of servants to look after their every need. On one side live the Pendinnis boys: Sidney, Albert and Ashbridge, and on the other side, the Pitt brothers, Daniel and Archie. The story opens with the families celebrating the new Edwardian reign after the coronation of Edward VII. They are enjoying the golden day and celebrating what will surely be a glorious new era. Rosie and Ashbridge get engaged on this day, even though they are children yet.
Then we fast forward a few years, a new king is on the thrown and war has been declared. All the boys enlist, keen to do their part before it’s all over. Rosie and Ash are still engaged and agree to wait until he has leave or the war is over before they get married. Boys from the same towns and areas were stationed together and fought side by side. This meant that often whole generations of boys from the same town were wiped out – they didn’t do that in the WWII because they had learned this horrible lesson. All three Pendinnis boys die, leaving Rosie to mourn the loss of a man she considered herself already married to.
The first third of this book is all over the place. Each chapter is written from a different perspective, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, a few chapters are diary form from the front. Those chapters were really difficult tor read- they offered a gruesome and probably fairly accurate picture of the horrors of trench warfare.
Once the war is over, the narrative settles down some but not that much happens. Daniel was an ace pilot and comes back intent on winning Rosie over. The McCosh household must learn to make do without footmen, Christabel finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and Sophie falls in love with a pastor.
I love this era. I admire the strength of people to take on a war unlike anything in history before. It was a time of such social upheaval – women agitating for the vote, having worked outside the home while the men were away fighting, the changes in social structure as servants fought side by side with the men they used to serve. Such a stage for story telling! And even with such a personal connection to this story as de Bernieres has, it still manages to fall flat. I was enchanted by the dedication and when I went back to look at it after I had finished the book, it did tug a little more at my heartstrings, I understood some of what the author was trying to do. Daniel and Rosie struggle to find happiness together, both of them dogged by the shadow of their old friend/fiance Ash. But at some point they have to make the decision to be happy. I’m not sure that 511 pages were needed to get there.