Set in London in the 1930s, The Living and the Dead is the story of Catherine Standish and her two adult children, Elyot and Eden. They are three individuals living behind emotional barriers, seldom able to empathize or give themselves fully to love. There are also class barriers involved, as each increasingly finds her or his upper class status more of a burden than a privilege. Each eventually comes to question the purpose of life, seeking answers--or escape--in different directions.
The novel focuses not on events, but on feelings. White writes from deep inside the psyche of each of his characters in insightful, analytic prose. This is a thoughtful, but slow-paced novel, and the author's turgid style does not make it easy to read. The absence of quotation marks is only occasionally confusing, but White's frequent use of second person (suddenly it is "You took the train..." instead of Elyot or Eden) just calls attention to how the author is writing, not what he is saying. The characters are well-crafted, and there are beautifully-written passages throughout the book, but I found this bleak, uneventful and difficult novel on the whole unrewarding.