The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

001The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is the first volume of the Cazalet Chronicles–a series of novels about an upper middle class English family.

In volume one, the Cazalet sons along with their wives and children visit their parents’ home in the country. The action takes place over two summers, 1937 and 1938.

The cast of characters is so large that a family tree and list of characters is provided. I found myself referring to this information regularly at the beginning of the novel.

The Light Years reads like a series of inter-connected vignettes. The point of view shifts in each section. While this technique impedes the flow of the novel, it allows the reader to get to know the various characters, including the many children, more intimately than would be possible if a different writing style had been employed. It also helped me to understand the motivation of several characters who, on the surface, are decidedly unlikable.

The Light Years appealed to me for several reasons.

First, it’s a substantial novel. At 578 pages, it’s a brick of a book. (Keep in mind, I like long novels. When I commit to reading something, I commit. Gone With the Wind, my favourite book ever, comes in at over 1,000 pages.)

Second, I’m facinated by England in the 1930’s so The Light Years ticks that particular box for me. But even readers who aren’t especially interested in England between the wars will be engaged by the many details of daily life and family interaction in this novel.

Third, because The Light Years was written in 1990, the author is able to look back on the events of the novel with some perspective. Rather than allowing a history buff and anglophone like me to wallow in nostalgia for this more innocent, slower paced time, Elizabeth Jane Howard points out some aspects of 1930’s life that are better left behind. A glaring example of this is the constraints on the relationship between Rachel, the unmarried Cazalet daughter and Sid, the woman she loves.

There are three more volumes in the Cazalet Chronicles so I’m happy to have lots of easy summer reading lined up.