First Published: 2010 by Vintage
My copy: Bought in paperback
Memorable quote: “Certain locations have the ability to retain the emotions of generation upon generation, until they begin to exude them like the resin that forces itself out of the veins of a pine.”
Louis de Bernieres has always been drawn to far-flung locations: Latin America, the Australian Outback, Greek islands. But in this beautiful collection of short stories he focuses his attentions closer to home, recalling the English village life of his childhood. Yet this work is no less exotic, strange and wonderful than his earlier books, featuring – as it does – a whole cast of eccentric, melancholic and enjoyable characters including a retired general who has given up wearing clothes, a spiritualist who still lives amiably with the ghost of her dead husband, a mother and son who communicate via walkie-talkie despite living in the same house, and a gardener who talks to spiders. These stories twist between amusing tweeness and heart-wrenching sadness. There are many funny moments but the overall tone is one of nostalgia for a world we have lost. Melancholy creeps in as the stories progress and the final tales deal with the loss of old village life: the death of the Notwithstanding’s ‘last true peasant’ and the way in which second-home owners have now made it impossible for children to buy houses and settle in the village where they grew up.
Having grown up in a rural village myself I found myself nodding along at so many of the quirky details such as the way that people are known simply as “the owner of (insert dog’s name here)” and the way, as De Bernieres writes in his afterword, “those who grow up loving the countryside do so in the same way they grow to love their parents.” In other words, it can frustrate the hell out of you sometimes, but it’s a love for life. For those born in a rural environment, where ever you may end up settling, there’s no disputing that the countryside gets in your blood and remains an irrevocable part of who you are. In fact, I’ve never known a writer capture the way I feel in that respect quite so perfectly. This a return to form for De Bernieres after the slightly lacklustre Partisan’s Daughter. A bitter-sweet collection of stories to savour.