Friday, August 19, 2016

We That Are Left by Clare Clark

Ellinghurst is one of those English country estates that seem like they are of another world.  It is a place of great beauty, architectural wonders and treasures from around the world.  It is the ancestral home of one of England's great families, the Melvilles.  At the start of World War I, it seems a place of permanency and tradition that won't change.  This generation's family has three children.  Theo, the heir, is one of those young men whose very bearing shouts privilege and that great things are destined for him.  Phyllis is interested in study and is determined to find a way to escape a woman's lot and spend her days in work and scholarship.  Jessica, the baby, is sure that there are lots of men who will give her a great time before marrying her and providing a comparable life to the one she was raised with.

Ellinghurst at first seems imperious to the war.  The house's life moves on with house parties and weekend hunts.  One common visit is the wife's best friend and her young son.  Oscar is the same age as Jessica and he and she are commonly left out by the rest of the children being so much younger.  Oscar is terribly shy; most people never see his great intellect due to his inability to speak out and participate in groups.

But war changes everything.  An entire generation of young men are consumed by it and Theo is soon one of them.  Phyllis escapes to become a nurse and serve the hundreds of young men scarred and deformed by battle.  Oscar gets a place at Cambridge where he studies physics while even Jessica finds a way to escape to London and get a job.  There are rumblings of changes in society; changes to the social structure that will make it impossible to retain great family estates.  Throughout the changes to society are echoed in the lives of these four young people and their relationships with each other over the years.

This novel, like others of Clare Clark's work, has garnered praise.  It was a 2015 Washington Post Notable Fiction Book and a New York Times Editor's Choice.  Her former novels, The Great Stink and The Strange Lands, were both Orange (now Bailey's) Prize nominees.  It portrays a time and place that has largely vanished and gives the reader an insight into the landed gentry and their way of life.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction and those interested in family relationships.

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