The first novel of the autumn season, The Valley of Bones is a somewhat breezier affair than its immediate predecessors. But just where, exactly, do we stand in the overall scheme of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time? Well, in this, the seventh volume of twelve, the Phoney War is well underway, and Nicholas Jenkins (newly 'geared to the machine of war') finds himself a second lieutenant in a Welsh regiment. He is married, and his wife, Isobel, is expecting their first child (disregarding the miscarriage suffered in an earlier book). Unfortunately, though, the world is in a state of baffling flux, a situation microcosmically mirrored by his battalion's various escapades.
Apart from the obligatory visit to a country house, the book focuses on life in barracks. Posted to Northern Island, Nick and his troops must frequently undergo training exercises, marches, and spot-checks. Again, like the rest of the novels, a mass of new characters are introduced at the outset, and it becomes a touch disorientating. It is not long, however, before Powell's superb additions hold their own, and Rowland Gwatkin, Idwal Kedward, Herbert 'Odo' Stevens, and the bibulous Bithel all manage to claim a spot in the author's populous canvas.
The drier humour of the earlier volumes has been dispelled, and The Valley of Bones is the first Dance novel to benefit from a tighter structure. There is a delicate arrangement of the tragicomic elements, while the amusing set pieces are conveyed with a far greater panache than before. Furthermore, the prose has been reworked, the long, sinuous sentences chopped to a manageable length. Nevertheless, Powell shows an impulsive urge to namedrop every character from the series, and it starts to feel like an unlikely procession of tenuous associations. It may be a small world, but such a dense web of affinities begins to stretch credibility.
Although the novel mixes the humour of Dad's Army with the absurdist pathos of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Powell writes movingly of war, and in one stunning passage likens death to a game of musical chairs, a game in which the person 'left without a seat...[is] petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment'. Such dazzling moments enhance the precarious tragicomic balance, and their newfound regularity suggests a development in Powell's craftsmanship, a fresh maturity that makes The Valley of Bones the best of the Dance novels so far.