Country Life autumn book reviews

Small Wars by Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus)

The author of the runaway success The Outcast has remained in the suffocating 1950s for her second novel, which is set during the civil unrest in Cyprus. Hal Treherne is a buttoned-up major in the British army, Clara his equally stilted wife. There’s no doubt that physical passion and quiet, loving understanding sustains their marriage, but when the situation gets really bloody, stressful – and corrupt – their lack of easy communication becomes painfully exposed.

Unlike normal war situations, here the wives and families are on site, dangerously near the action. Other husbands and wives deal with it differently, having affairs, getting drunk, but Hal finds it impossible switch off from being a leader of men in horrific situations to being the clubbable husband and tender father. Hal is an honourable man, and the deepening crisis within him has to give somewhere – and, eventually, it does, although it’s a drearily long time coming.

Like The Outcast, love will provide redemption. Unfortunately, however, unlike The Outcast, in which anti-hero Lewis was an extraordinarily compelling figure, Hal and Clara are dull. And, as Ms Jones appears to grope for a plot line, her writing becomes strangely random and abrupt – it’s presumably meant to be an effective technique to portray the close, tedious, sweaty fear of life at the front, but it isn’t.

However, I stuck with it for, ultimately, this is a satisfying and interesting story, if not in the outstanding class of the first novel.

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One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

This is a clever, original, superior lad-lit idea from the author of the very funny Starter For Ten. Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley are an unlikely couple, but a drink and graduation-fuelled one-night stand at on July 15, 1988, leads to an unshakeable 20-year friendship in which they agree to meet on July 15 every year, with varying degrees of success, mainly due to Dexter letting Emma down.

The relationship is unlevel from the start. Dexter is handsome, public-school educated, self-absorbed and feckless, messed up by the death of his mother, drugs and his failing career as a presenter of utterly pointless TV programmes. Emma is unglamorous, intelligent, motivated, right-on, self-righteous and funny. She is dogged by her love for Dexter, who is mainly in love with himself.

Can Dex and Em have a happy ending? Read and find out – it’s worth it. One Day bounces along in a readable, funny and clever way. Its portrait of the last 20 years will resonate particularly with the 40-somethings, and it’s bound to be made into a compulsive BBC/ITV 9pm drama starring Emily Mortimer and Robert Bathurst.

Mad World, Evelyn Waugh and the secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne (Harper Press, £25)

Plenty has been written about the brilliance and complexity of the writer Evelyn Waugh, and Paula Byrne has sensibly taken with, it would appear, the blessing of his family, a particular angle: how his opus magnum Brideshead Revisited came to be written and, with it, the origins of his many other novels: Decline and Fall (Waugh’s unhappy stint as a schoolmaster), Scoop and Black Mischief (reporting in Abyssinia), Sword of Honour (his wartime career in southern Europe), etc.

Like Brideshead’s narrator, Charles Ryder, Waugh came from an educated but middle-class and stifling suburban background and he attended a relatively minor public school (Lancing). As for Ryder, Oxford was a revelation, and Waugh would find aristocratic families  irresistible. After numerous affairs and flirtations, with both sexes, Waugh settles on the Lygon family of Madresfield (model for Brideshead Castle) for a mutually enduring and devoted friendship which, happily, lives on in many revealing and entertaining letters.

Waugh loves, first, Hugh Lygon (model for Sebastian Flyte) who dies a tawdry death, then his beautiful, tragic sister Maimie (Lady Mary), immortalised Julia Flyte. Coote (Lady Dorothy) finds fulfilment in war work and becomes Cordelia, the devoted youngest daughter, in the novel; Lord Elmley, who marries an older woman, is lampooned as Bridey.

Their father is Lord Beauchamp, ‘ the last man to be hounded into exile’ (for homosexual indiscretions), by the Duke of Westminster. In Brideshead, this tragic life is softened to that of the amenable Lord Marchmain, who is tactfully given a mistress (Cara) for his exile in Venice; Lady Beachamp, however, is shown no such mercy as the ghastly religious maniac Lady Marchmain.

The background to much of Waugh’s early writing is unrequited love, lack of confidence and a struggle with his Catholic faith – he has to get his disastrous first marriage to She-Evelyn annulled before he can marry Laura Herbert, mother of his six children.

Byrne’s own immensely book reads like a pacy novel, which is dotted with anecdotes about the figures du jour, such as Nancy Mitford, and portrays with respect Waugh’s diversity of character – his bravery and loyalty, his cruelty and arrogance and, perhaps more than other biographers, the lovability which drew his friends. No wonder the family approved – this is a wonderful and well-presented tribute.