I was inspired to pick up this set of books after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 adaptation this year, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the author, Elizabeth Jane Howard – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.
In post World War II Switzerland, a lonely boy and his bitter, distant mother live in a tiny flat in a nondescript town. Events in the past throw dark shadows over their lives, but what exactly has happened is a mystery to 10-year-old Gustav. The novel, divided into three parts or ‘sonatas’, takes us back to happier times before the war, to a devastating event that breaks the spell, and to Gustav’s life as an adult.
There’s something alluring about Victorian England as a setting for novels, a society full of contrasts and contradictions: extreme poverty and unfathomable wealth, a prim public life and a seedy underworld, modern factories and rural communities. Sarah Perry’s sensual love story with an intellectual twist, delivered in a style that transports you back to the time, sits perfectly within this world.
At the beginning, The Underground Railroad feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.