Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Dust That Falls from Dreams
reviewed by David Beer

The Dust That Falls from Dreams
by Louis de Bernières
Pantheon Books, 2015

If you enjoyed Corelli's Mandolin (1995) or saw the movie, you'll be happy to know that de Bernières has now written another rich saga, this time about three families caught up in the Great War and its aftermath. This is de Bernière's second novel set in 1914–18: his Birds Without Wings (2004) takes place in a Turkish village during the war and the rise of Kemal Atatürk. Like other works by this author, The Dust That Falls from Dreams is a lengthy read of over 500 pages — but don't let that put you off. A flowing and lucid prose plus very short chapters make this an enjoyable and effortless read, and almost every page gives evidence that de Bernières has done his homework by acquiring an intimate knowledge of even some of the most obscure details of the war.  This novel has been selected as one of the ten best pieces of fiction for 2015 by Time Magazine.

British Middle Class Family, Prewar Period

Opening with a brief but touching account of Queen Victoria's final days (her last imperial act was to proclaim the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia), this historical novel takes us into life in the Edwardian era, the war, the period following the Armistice, and briefly on to what was then still Ceylon. The lives of three well-to-do families, all neighbors living just south of London, are focused on during this tumultuous time. They, like so many others, are steeped in the Victorian era of empire and comfort yet are soon to be cruelly disrupted and tested. Predominant are the McCosh family with four daughters — Christabel, Ottilie, Rosie, and Sophie. Mr Hamilton McCosh loves golf, his London club, and a mistress or two while investing in often precarious enterprises. Mrs McCosh "was always writing to the King, and was the fiercely proud owner of a little pile of polite and non-committal acknowledgements from his secretary."

Next to them live their extremely proper American neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Pendennis, formerly from Baltimore, with their sons Sidney, Albert, and Ashbridge. These boys must shake their father's hand before breakfast and address him as "Sir." On the other side live an Anglo-French family, the Pitts, with two daredevil brothers, Archie and Daniel. All the children are lively and get along well. By their late teens when war breaks out, they have happily formed a pact as "Pals" and romance is beginning to flourish.

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This is the setting for what soon becomes a family saga that we find hard to put down. The author presents the thoughts and experiences of all the main characters throughout the book's short chapters, so as the novel progresses we see events from multiple points of view. Without revealing the story line, I can say that the sections of the book dealing with the trenches, aerial combat, and nursing the wounded and dying – all of which one or more of the young people experience — are among the best I have ever read. When the war ends, those who have survived (death has been no stranger to the families) are overwhelmed by the sense of loss and uncertainty that descends upon them. Everything seems to have changed and they must each deal with it in their own ways. One riveting chapter is an internal soliloquy by Daniel Pitt, who has survived the war after recklessly flying a "split-arsed" Camel fighter ("Real heroes don't jump, they just bounce or burn") and who nostalgically recalls to the smallest detail all he is now going to badly miss.

The characters themselves add greatly to both the charm and the intensity of the novel. Some, like Mrs. McCosh, seem to take on an almost Dickensian quality with their eccentricities. Sophie McCosh, less prominent in the story line than her sister Rosie but more fortunate in love, frequently confuses or amuses everyone with her poetic misuse of the language. It's Sophie who supplies the title for the novel on her wedding night, mystically alluding to a poem by Rupert Brooke.

In many ways The Dust That Falls from Dreams reminds me of a Victorian novel combined with a war novel. So many "ingredients" are blended into the story, such as letters and excerpts from diaries, references to well-known poets, emphasis on proper manners, thoughts on God and religion, and a séance with disquieting results. A fascinating chapter deals solely with the autograph book that Rosie gradually fills up with the signatures and sentiments of her wounded patients: "It was bound in soft black leather, and the paper was thick and watermarked. Rosie had wanted a book of high quality in order to demonstrate to the men how much she valued them."

A British Nurse Lights a Cigarette for a Patient

You'll find plenty of words in this book no longer in use but fairly common during the period. They don't hinder the reading of the novel but do serve to put us more fully in the early 1900s. You may be tempted to look up words like whitster, pelmet, or efell, or wonder what a "cats'-meat-man" is (you can google it). Some are self-explanatory on reflection, such as rear admiral – the solder who drew the duty of cleaning out the trench latrine. As mentioned earlier, the author has done his homework and has written yet another rich, authentic, and captivating historical novel.

Author Louis de Bernières was born in London in 1954. After a brief stint in the army he eventually obtained an MA at the University of London. Before becoming a full-time writer he was a landscape gardener, motorcycle messenger, car mechanic, and English teacher in South America. I can strongly recommend his The Dust That Falls from Dreams to anyone who enjoys a novel that is paradoxically both a leisurely read with a Victorian flavor and also a deeply insightful look at the devastating effects the Great War had on the lives of three families.

David Beer


  1. This sounds very appealing, David.

    I'm curious about one aspect, that the characters are all from "three well-to-do families". Is this primarily an upper-class novel?
    Related: does it deal with the class tensions of the time?

    1. From David Beer: Good question, Bryan. The novel doesn't concern itself with any kind of class tensions--they just don't enter into it other than perhaps a bit with Mrs. Macosh's pretentiousness in writing to the King.

  2. Which is nearly an intra-class thing, given her family's elite standing, I gather.
    Interesting. The stress on class tensions is such a major WWI theme.

    Now I'd like to read the previous novel, about Turkey.

  3. Capturing the intricacies of daily life, regardless of the class, in this period of transition between old and new is apparently done well in your reviewed book. Bravo!

  4. I read this very readable story a few months ago and so did my Book Club! Yes it is a combination of a Edwardian England moving out of the shadows of Victoria and the Great War! The characters all have personalities that make the stories compelling and, at times, painfully real.

  5. Excellent review, David. Thank you. I don't normally do fiction but based on this, I am going to have to make an exception. Does the BBC have the film rights?

  6. An excellent read; I couldn't put it down. The families are (upper?) middle class, but the war tends to level things. Ash's best friend in the trenches was a former servant, and the nurses deal with all classes. The 1920's are depicted as egalitarian, as much, I would think, as the 1950's.

    1. That's a good perspective, esbuck. One aspect of WWI was a breakdown of prewar social order, including increasing class tension. Hence the major strikes right afterwards.
      We can see this in a lot of fiction from the time.