This, the second in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, continues the story begun in The Light Years, taking us through the early stages of the Second World War. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read the first book, but I found that I could still remember the characters and storylines and jump straight back into the story. If I’d needed a reminder, though, the book opens with a useful family tree, character list and summary of the previous novel.
Marking Time begins just as Britain declares war on Germany in September 1939 and ends just two years later, in 1941. The Cazalet family – who include ‘the Brig’ and his wife ‘the Duchy’; their daughter, Rachel; their three sons, Hugh, Edward and Rupert, with their wives and children; and an assortment of other relations, friends and servants – are gathered again at Home Place in the Sussex countryside and this is where most of them will be based during the two years the novel covers. As an upper middle class family, they are sheltered from some of the worst deprivations of the war, but eventually it does begin to affect each of their lives in all sorts of ways.
One of my criticisms of The Light Years was that the number of characters was overwhelming and the constant changes from one perspective to another made it difficult to focus. Marking Time has a slightly different format. There are still several chapters which deal with the whole family, spending a few pages with one family member, then a few pages with another, but there are also some longer sections which concentrate on one character at a time.
The characters who are given their own chapters are the three teenage girls – Louise, Polly and Clarissa (Clary) – who happen to be three of the characters I singled out as favourites in my review of The Light Years. I was delighted to have the opportunity to spend a more substantial period of time with each of the girls, getting to know them better. Louise, the eldest child of Edward and Villy, is an intriguing mixture of sophistication and innocence. In Marking Time, we see her leave home to become an actress, fall in love for the first time, and make an unwelcome discovery about another family member. Clary’s chapters are written partly in the form of diary entries and this gives her a particularly strong and distinctive voice. Clary receives some bad news quite early in the war – although we don’t yet know exactly how bad – but there are some positives to come out of this, such as an improvement in her relationship with her stepmother, Zoe. Meanwhile, Polly – Hugh and Sybil’s daughter – overhears a private conversation which throws her life into turmoil.
Despite all the problems various family members are experiencing, the novel isn’t entirely depressing; there are some funny scenes too, mainly involving the younger children, Neville and Lydia, and we see the beginnings of a touching romance between two of the Cazalet servants. Although the lifestyle of the Cazalet family is entirely different from my own – partly because of the time period in which they live, but also because of their class – I still feel that they are people I understand and care about. I enjoyed this book much more than the first and am pleased I still have another three Cazalet novels to read. The next one is Confusion and I’m looking forward to finding out how the family fare throughout the rest of the war.
This is book 14/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.