The tangled lives of three generations evoke a vanished world in this, the first volume of the Cazalet Chronicle. Home Place, Sussex, 1937. The English family at home.... For two unforgettable summers, they gathered together, safe from the advancing storm clouds of war. In the heart of the Sussex countryside, these were still sunlit days of childish games, lavish family meals, and picnics on the beach. Three generations of the Cazalet family played out their lives - with their relatives, their children and their servants - and the fascinating triangle of their affairs....
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This is the first book of the Cazalet Chronicles, a family saga about the Cazalet family clan living very comfortably thanks to a family business—this prompting me to think of them henceforward as another set of Forsytes (see The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy), another family clan living comfortably from the fruit of their trade. It starts in the late 1930s while Europe is on the brink of WWII. Most of the actions takes place during two consecutive summer family vacations, when the whole clan are gathered at their Sussex family home. There are three generations of Cazalets, with spouses and their families plus the servants and various employees to keep track of, and while I usually have quite a bit of trouble remembering who is who when there are more than a handful of characters, this was more or less easily done here, as each of the characters is very well drawn and has a unique individual story.
The children are busy at their games and worries; about going back to school and attendant bullying for the boys, while the girls are dreaming up their future career options given the minimal education they are offered; acting, being a nun, nursing are a few possibilities. Their elderly impoverished teacher with a face like a toad and a heart of gold was a personal favourite. Their fathers, three Cazalet siblings, are all veterans from WWI. The eldest is badly affected by his war wounds and suffers from debilitating headaches (how I empathized with him!), the second is an inveterate womanizer who descends into downright disgusting lechery, while the third and youngest (and comparatively poor) brother has married a very young girl who seems to offer nothing but her beauty, after tragically losing his first wife, and badly failing to establish his painting career. Their unmarried sister meanwhile is charged with caring for her elderly father who is slowly losing his eyesight but not ready to relinquish his post of command, while she is also involved in a chaste love affair more or less sanctioned by the family.
These are innocent times, when the menace of oncoming war seems more like a fictional possibility than a real threat, though by the second summer, in 1938, when the German annexation of Czechoslovakia seems inevitable and before the signing of the Munich agreement, preparations for an assault are underway at the Cazalet compound just in case Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler doesn’t go so well and London must be evacuated. All in all, a very satisfying piece of historical fiction seen through a modern writer’s eye, so that things which would have been left unsaid by a contemporary writer are here fully revealed. This very much brought to mind another favourite female British author’s work, The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley, which was also written in the late 20th century; it too is about a large family clan, with the story beginning during innocent pre-war summer holidays, here taking place in Cornwall. The fifth book in the Cazalet Chronicles was published recently and I will almost certainly make my way to it with time. Thanks to Suzanne and Heather on LibraryThing for strongly recommending this series of novels. I should also mention that the narration by Jill Balcon was delightful.