This is the first of the five volumes which form The Cazalet Chronicles, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series about an upper-middle class English family and how their lives are affected by World War II. Everyone seemed to be reading these books a year or two ago (if they hadn’t already read them at the time of publication), so I’m coming to them late as usual!
First published in 1990, The Light Years opens in the summer of 1937 with three generations of the Cazalet family gathering at Home Place, the Sussex home of ‘the Brig’, now an elderly man but still in charge of the family business, and his wife, affectionately known as ‘the Duchy’. The Brig and the Duchy have three sons; two of these, Hugh and Edward, work in the business and are able to provide comfortable lifestyles for their wives and children, but the third brother, Rupert, has chosen a different path in life – as an artist who is yet to find any success, he is struggling financially, much to the disappointment of his second wife, the beautiful and much younger Zoe. There is also a sister, Rachel, who is unmarried but, unknown to the rest of the family, in love with her friend, a woman called Sid.
After being introduced to each of the Cazalets, their spouses, children, servants and friends, we then jump forward a year to 1938 when the same people – and several more – are beginning to gather together again. On the surface it looks like being another idyllic summer of relaxing in the garden, playing tennis and board games and visiting the beach, but in reality, few if any of the characters are truly happy. There are cracks appearing in Rupert and Zoe’s marriage, and in Edward and Villy’s, Rachel dreads being separated from Sid, and the children face a series of dramas ranging from chickenpox and the loss of beloved pets to the fear of being sent away to school. Meanwhile, the approaching war casts a shadow over everything, as the possibility of conflict with Germany, which at first seemed so remote, begins to look more and more likely.
I didn’t get off to a very good start with this book; it took me a while to get into it, but I think part of the problem was that with so many characters, and the perspective switching from one to the other every few pages, it made it difficult to find someone to identify with and focus on. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, things changed. I felt that I was starting to get to know some of the characters at last, and to feel sympathy for the situations they were in. I went from wondering whether to continue reading to knowing that I would not only be finishing this book, but almost certainly reading the second one, Marking Time, as well!
I particularly enjoyed spending time with the younger generation of the family. The relationships, friendships and rivalries between three of the girls – Louise, Polly and Clary – and three of the boys – Teddy, Simon and Christopher – were very well written and I’m looking forward to seeing them continue to develop as they grow up. Sometimes when you read a novel with child characters, it feels as though the author has forgotten what it was like to be a child; that was not the case in this book – I felt that Elizabeth Jane Howard had remembered exactly how a child’s mind works and the things that are important to them.
I did end up feeling very positive about this book overall and can understand now why so many people love this series so much. The last thing I need at the moment is to be adding four more long novels to my TBR, but I think I’ll have to as I can’t imagine not finding out what happens next to the Cazalets!