Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2016

The Dust That Falls from Dreams, by Louis de Bernières

The Dust That Falls from Dreams I am sorry to say this because I have been a long-time admirer of Louis de Bernières, but The Dust That Falls from Dreams is banal.  The only explanation I can muster for this disappointing book is that it was published to coincide with the fervour of WW1 anniversaries.  But by focussing on the domestic dramas of a cartoonish British family, De Bernières has confirmed my opinion that he needs a large political-historical canvas to work with.

It’s the story of the middle-class McCosh family with four daughters and their neighbors, the Pitts and Pendennis families, whose sons go off to the trenches and mostly get killed, leaving behind broken hearts and shattered dreams. De Bernières has depicted the impact of great conflicts on the little people before, notably of course in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and to greater effect in Birds Without Wings, but he has ruined the characterisation in The Dust That Falls from Dreams with over-egged British eccentricity so that the reader fails to feel much empathy at all.

Despite the predictable horrified response of their snobbish mother, the girls sign up to do Good and Noble things during the war, while the men in the air force dash about in a Biggles-ish kind of way and the ones in the trenches have an awful time of it.  I am not blasé about the suffering of the soldiers, but I don’t think there is much point in regurgitating this suffering in fiction for the sake of it.  There has to be a reason to revisit it, and I don’t think this author has one.

Anyway, after the war, the bereaved deal with their loss in different ways.  The servant girl has no option but to get on with life while middle-class Rosie seems to have the luxury of sanctifying her promises to her fiancé and setting her broken heart in stone.  Meanwhile the survivors of the fighting have to reinvent themselves for peace, and have trouble adjusting.  Mrs McCosh has to get used to the servant crisis; her husband is more adept at this because he is A Reasonable Fellow while the war seems to have brought out the worst in his wife.  Her daughters excuse her bad manners as the aftereffects of shock (because she witnessed the death of her friend) but it’s not convincing.

In fact very little of this book is convincing.  At 511 pages it’s much too long, it’s painfully repetitive, and the endless anecdotes about airplanes and dogfights is beyond dull.  (Young authors can be excused for wanting to use every bit of their research because sometimes they don’t get enough editorial support, but this author should have been reined in).

I won’t go on and on about it because I really do love this author’s work and would rather consign this book to oblivion than spend much time excoriating it.

The NYT review seems ambivalent: it refers to forgettable subplots (don’t get me started on the spiritualism strand) but that it represents a fresh extension of de Bernières’s longstanding interest in the timeless conflicts of love and loyalty.  Christian House at The Telegraph thought it was a charming and quietly moving tale, while Leyla Sanai at The Independent had doubts not unlike mine but is more forgiving of what she calls whimsy and I call twaddle.

Author: Louis de Bernières
Title: The Dust That Falls from Dreams
Publisher: Harvill Secker, (Penguin-Random House), 2015
ISBN: 9781846558771
Source: Personal library, purchased from Embiggen Books Melbourne, $32.99

Available from Fishpond: The Dust That Falls from Dreams


Responses

  1. I know you’re disappointed, but I enjoy an excoriating review, and I didn’t like Capt Correlli’s Mandolin much anyway.

    • LOL, don’t encourage me!

  2. I am totally with you on this one. I interviewed Louis De Bernieres by phone before he came here last year for the MWF and I so wanted to love this book as much as his others but sadly I could not whip up much enthusiasm for it at all. You might remember that I tried to encourage you to review the book back then (mainly because I wanted someone to agree with me). Because he was giving the opening address for that festival I thought that no one would be prepared to be really honest about it. But I did read a review (in the Age I think) where the comment was made that the characters were like cardboard cut outs with not much substance. Even the title “The Dust that Falls From Dreams” jarred with me.

    • Ah yes, I remember now … LOL my timing is bad!

  3. Oh dear! CC’s Mandolin is one of my favourite books! How disappointing 😞

    • This one is definitely out of character. I’ve read all his South American novels, as well as CCM and Birds without Wings, and they were all great. So don’t be put off, this one is just an aberration.

  4. This sounds like the British version of The U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos. I’m pretty sure the message was that war is bad because young women wait at home while young men go off and either die or come back riddled with syphilis.

    • Rightio, that’s another one to avoid, then!

  5. I’m so glad you hated this too – I thought I might have been biased because I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life/A God in Ruins just before I tackled De Bernieres, and Atkinson writes so brilliantly about war.

    There’s no way a debut author could have written this and been published. There are so many irrelevant threads that go nowhere. There’s even a passage (albeit in my proof copy) that he lifted directly from Captain Corelli.

    The worst part? It’s part one of a proposed trilogy. NOOOO!

    • No, no, no, please tell me you’re wrong about the trilogy!
      I was hoping this would be just an aberration and that with the WW1 anniversaries out of the way he would go back to writing the insightful novels that I’ve loved. Oh, what a pity!

  6. Your review is a great relief to me: I was beginning to think I was the only reader with curmudgeonly complaints. Here, and also in Birds without Wings, the author badly needs a tougher editor. Not only is the book far too long; the writer also repeats himself (“one-two-three-whee”, for example, shows up twice and one suspects it is not by design). I also tire of the piles and piles of evidence that he has done massive research into this or that subject. For one stretch on WWI flying jargon, I needed a dictionary at hand at least once per paragraph.

    I wish his editor would rein him in.

    • Hello Kathleen, thanks for your comment:)
      Yes, this is the kind of book that makes people think that editing is a dying art. It’s a shame but it happens sometimes to the best of authors because the advance has been paid, and the deadline is past, and the bean counters (who don’t care about books and writing) want a return on their money. They think we readers are silly enough to be swayed by a famous name and so the book goes out when it’s not ready. It’s a disservice to the writer and the publisher, if only they knew it, because of course it puts readers off for the future.
      What I would say is, try to hunt out his earlier novels (before Capt Corelli) – I hope you will enjoy them more.

      • That’s good advice, thank you! Presumably he had to work hard to get the early books published-and unconstrained by any WWI anniversary dates or the like.

        • Yes. Actually I remember an interview he gave as Capt Corelli catapulted him to fame, and he was struggling with it. He said that the pressure to attend festivals and whatnot, meant that he had less and less time to take himself off to the quiet and just think and write. It’s sad, I reckon, to dream of being successful and then find that it compromises the very thing you want to be good at.

          • Ironic and too bad. Here is the fruit of it.


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