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The Light Years: Vol.1 (Cazalet Chronicles) Paperback – 8 Nov 1991
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The first novel of a trilogy that chronicles the fortunes of the Cazalet family, from the early days of 1937 when the wear and tear of family life with parents, children, servants and lovers is infiltrated by the anxiety about German air power, Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain's trips to see Hitler.
About the Author
Elizabeth Jane Howard was the author of fifteen highly acclaimed novels. The Cazalet Chronicles - The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change - have become established as modern classics and have been adapted for a major BBC television series and for BBC Radio 4. In 2002 Macmillan published Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography, Slipstream. In that same year she was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List. She died, aged 90, at home in Suffolk on 2 January 2014.
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Elizabeth Jane Howard gives a detailed and often touching insight into lives where servants provide breakfast, drive 'one' to the office, and nanny and governess are accepted within the household, although their social ( lack of status) is clearly defined. It's a time of uncertainty as war clouds gather over Europe and the Cazalet children provide an interesting insight into the moral complexities of war and socialism. The Brig and The Duchy, as familial patriarch and matriarch, are an interesting counterpart to changing conventions. Along with daughter Rachel, who's bound by familial duty, but yearning to explore an alternative lifestyle, the microcosm of life is complete.
I like the way the story builds, very slowly as the reader is introduced to both the time and the people. There's a very strong sense of individuals as each character is introduced and developed. Often amusing, always interesting, there's a sudden darkness when much darker issues are explored. Familial abuse creeps in, along with adultery, same sex attraction, deceit and a whole range of family conflicts bubbling away beneath the surface.
This book is very much a snapshot of time, people and place, with all the associated moral conventions and challenges. I particularly enjoyed the humour, always understated, but adding a depth to the characters. The governess is a masterpiece in depiction of type. Absolutely captivated from start to finish and I'm looking forward to the later books in the series.
The story is set in the immediate pre-WW2 years in an established middle-class family of three generations. The author tells the story of each of these generations and quite a lot of the book is about the children/grandchildren. I didn't get confused between characters and who is related to whom but by the time I get to the next volume I will probably have forgotten everything I knew about their relationships !
The joy of this book is firstly in its evocation of a particular time and way of life The author does an excellent job of creating an appropriate atmosphere and of showing us about cultural norms rather than telling us. The second strength of the book is in the characterisations. The author is handling a large number of characters but she succeeds in making them each into individuals and in making them believable.
Nothing much happens here but the reading experience is still very enjoyable despite my wish that it was a bit shorter or more dramatic. The next book will, however, need to have a bit more action to keep me engaged with the series as a whole.
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The start of the Cazalet family's journey through the 20th century.