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So Much Life Left Over

A Novel

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Paperback
$16.95 US
On sale Jul 09, 2019 | 288 Pages | 978-0-525-56441-6
They were an inseparable tribe of childhood friends whose world was torn apart by the First World War. Some were lost in battle, and those who survived have had their lives unimaginably upended, scattered to Ceylon and India, France and Germany, and, inevitably, back to Britain. Now, at the dawn of the 1920s, all are trying to pick up the pieces. At the center of Louis de Bernières’s riveting novel are Daniel, an RAF flying ace, and Rosie, a wartime nurse. As their marriage is slowly revealed to be built on lies, Daniel finds solace—and, sometimes, family—with other women, and Rosie draws her religion around herself like a carapace. Here too are Rosie’s sisters—a bohemian, a minister’s wife, and a spinster, each seeking purpose and happiness in her own unconventional way; and Daniel’s military brother, unable to find his footing in a peaceful world. Told in brief, dramatic chapters, So Much Life Left Over follows the stories of these old friends over the decades as their paths re-cross or their ties fray, as they test loyalties and love, face survivor’s grief and guilt, and adjust to a new world.
 
“Superb. . . . [A] heart-gladdening and heartbreaking drama.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“De Bernières writes with whimsical sympathy.” —The Guardian

“Deft delineation of character is one of Louis de Bernières’ strengths. He does not caricature his people by highlighting their quirks, but shows them in action or dealing with inner conflicts. Consequently, the plot is not imposed on them by the exigencies of telling a story, but develops from their personalities and behavior.” —The Washington Times

“Witty and heartfelt. . . . De Bernières creates an impressionistic depiction of Britain recovering from one world war and slipping inexorably into another. . . . An irresistible reading experience.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“A richly enjoyable, agreeably old-fashioned novel. . . . De Bernières has so completely immersed himself in the period of which he is writing that his book . . . recalls bestsellers of the 1920s and 30s.” —The Scotsman
 
“Told with the usual warmth, subtlety, and emotional intelligence that de Bernières brings to his fiction.” —Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Wonderful.” —The Daily Telegraph
 
“This tragicomic romp has a winning glint in its eye, delivering oodles of Downton-esque entertainment as it portrays a changing Britain poised uneasily on the brink of modernity.” —Daily Mail
 
“[A] heart-tugging tale of love, loss, guilt and regret.” —Sunday Express
1
Gun Snap

 
The crackle of gunshots bounced between the mountainsides, the percussion fading with each return of echo. Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett sat side by side on a small level patch, playing gun snap. They had on the table before them two decks of cards, a box of ammunition and two Mark VI service revolvers. Fifteen yards away was a gibbet with two rows of six tin cans suspended from it on pieces of string.
 
The idea was to be the first person to put a bullet through every can. Sometimes, for a change, they went down to the valley, threw bottles out into a lake, and sank them with rifles. These were fine ways for two old fighter pilots to pass the last hour of the day as the mist rose up and supper was cooked in the bungalows.
 
Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death. Neither of them missed the killing, and if they went out after duck or small game, they never returned with more than their families could eat. They had both, many times, seen the way in which the light suddenly goes out of a man’s eyes as he passes out of the world, and it was just the same with an animal. There was no longer any triumph in the kill, the guilt was as intense as it had ever been, but still they yearned for the passionate oblivion of the hunt.
 
There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable, because he cannot develop the civilian’s talent for becoming obsessed with irrelevant details and procedures. He hates the delays and haverings, the tedious diplomacy, the terrible lack of energy and discipline, and, above all, he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important. 
 
If you have struggled for the freedom of France, or have fought to keep Zeppelins out of the skies over London, what else can seem important thereafter?
 
Daniel and Hugh were fortunate to be involved in the manufacture of tea, because everything in that industry depends upon good timing and good teamwork, and strictly understood hierarchies of responsibility. Daniel loved the huge and beautiful machinery in the factory, and could not resist rolling up his sleeves and helping the Singhalese engineers when it broke down. Machinery was so much easier to deal with than people. There was always a precise set of reasons why a machine may not be working, and there were always completely logical solutions. People were slippery and elusive, changeable and moody. You thought you understood them and then found out that you did not. You thought they loved you, and then they suddenly turned spiteful or indifferent.
 
Daniel enjoyed the sheer reasonableness of the machinery, but he also enjoyed the brotherhood of mechanics, and he reflected quite often that he had more in common, and more enjoyment, with the engineers than he did with those British people who congregated at the club. He had picked up some Singhalese, in addition to the Tamil of the tea workers, and was finding that the more languages you know, the better you understand your own. He realised that languages divide the world up differently from each other. He was half French, and had often wondered why it was that his French personality was different from his British one. In French he was more emphatic and rhetorical. Somebody had told him once that in Russian there was no word for blue. There was bound to be a word for pushrod, or tappet, though.
 
It was very fortunate for him that he had the company of Hugh Bassett, who had spent his war flying Sopwith triplanes and Camels over France, in the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS had been operating out of airfields alongside the Royal Flying Corps, and they had an inexhaustible amount to talk about, to mull over, to repeat. Both had binged beyond the borders of sanity, knew the same jokes and ribald songs, had overflown the same strip of desolation month after month; fought the same battle to keep flying sickness disorder at bay, to remain optimistic, to perform over and over again the impossible trick of trampling their own fear underfoot every time they sprinted to the cockpit. Daniel wondered if he had ever been truly courageous at all, but had rather been seduced by the wondrous beauty and excitement of flying, consoled by the airman’s simple fatalism. If today’s the day, then today’s the day. Goodbye, world, it was good to know you. All I ask is to die a clean death, one that’s not by burning.
 
But now he and Hugh, and the rest of those who had survived, had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with. Some became drunks; others fell quiet and imprisoned themselves inside themselves; some foresaw a brave new world and strode out towards it; others returned to what they had been before, and turned the war into the memory of an outrageous dream from which they had at last awoken. Most were as proud of what they had done as they were amazed to be yet alive.
© Ivon Bartholomew
Louis de Bernières is the author of many award-winning novels, including Birds Without Wings, Corelli’s Mandolin, The Dust That Falls from Dreams, Notwithstanding, A Partisan’s Daughter, Red Dog, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, and The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, de Bernières lives in England. www.louisdebernieres.co.uk View titles by Louis de Bernieres

About

They were an inseparable tribe of childhood friends whose world was torn apart by the First World War. Some were lost in battle, and those who survived have had their lives unimaginably upended, scattered to Ceylon and India, France and Germany, and, inevitably, back to Britain. Now, at the dawn of the 1920s, all are trying to pick up the pieces. At the center of Louis de Bernières’s riveting novel are Daniel, an RAF flying ace, and Rosie, a wartime nurse. As their marriage is slowly revealed to be built on lies, Daniel finds solace—and, sometimes, family—with other women, and Rosie draws her religion around herself like a carapace. Here too are Rosie’s sisters—a bohemian, a minister’s wife, and a spinster, each seeking purpose and happiness in her own unconventional way; and Daniel’s military brother, unable to find his footing in a peaceful world. Told in brief, dramatic chapters, So Much Life Left Over follows the stories of these old friends over the decades as their paths re-cross or their ties fray, as they test loyalties and love, face survivor’s grief and guilt, and adjust to a new world.
 
“Superb. . . . [A] heart-gladdening and heartbreaking drama.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“De Bernières writes with whimsical sympathy.” —The Guardian

“Deft delineation of character is one of Louis de Bernières’ strengths. He does not caricature his people by highlighting their quirks, but shows them in action or dealing with inner conflicts. Consequently, the plot is not imposed on them by the exigencies of telling a story, but develops from their personalities and behavior.” —The Washington Times

“Witty and heartfelt. . . . De Bernières creates an impressionistic depiction of Britain recovering from one world war and slipping inexorably into another. . . . An irresistible reading experience.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“A richly enjoyable, agreeably old-fashioned novel. . . . De Bernières has so completely immersed himself in the period of which he is writing that his book . . . recalls bestsellers of the 1920s and 30s.” —The Scotsman
 
“Told with the usual warmth, subtlety, and emotional intelligence that de Bernières brings to his fiction.” —Sydney Morning Herald
 
“Wonderful.” —The Daily Telegraph
 
“This tragicomic romp has a winning glint in its eye, delivering oodles of Downton-esque entertainment as it portrays a changing Britain poised uneasily on the brink of modernity.” —Daily Mail
 
“[A] heart-tugging tale of love, loss, guilt and regret.” —Sunday Express

Excerpt

1
Gun Snap

 
The crackle of gunshots bounced between the mountainsides, the percussion fading with each return of echo. Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett sat side by side on a small level patch, playing gun snap. They had on the table before them two decks of cards, a box of ammunition and two Mark VI service revolvers. Fifteen yards away was a gibbet with two rows of six tin cans suspended from it on pieces of string.
 
The idea was to be the first person to put a bullet through every can. Sometimes, for a change, they went down to the valley, threw bottles out into a lake, and sank them with rifles. These were fine ways for two old fighter pilots to pass the last hour of the day as the mist rose up and supper was cooked in the bungalows.
 
Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death. Neither of them missed the killing, and if they went out after duck or small game, they never returned with more than their families could eat. They had both, many times, seen the way in which the light suddenly goes out of a man’s eyes as he passes out of the world, and it was just the same with an animal. There was no longer any triumph in the kill, the guilt was as intense as it had ever been, but still they yearned for the passionate oblivion of the hunt.
 
There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable, because he cannot develop the civilian’s talent for becoming obsessed with irrelevant details and procedures. He hates the delays and haverings, the tedious diplomacy, the terrible lack of energy and discipline, and, above all, he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important. 
 
If you have struggled for the freedom of France, or have fought to keep Zeppelins out of the skies over London, what else can seem important thereafter?
 
Daniel and Hugh were fortunate to be involved in the manufacture of tea, because everything in that industry depends upon good timing and good teamwork, and strictly understood hierarchies of responsibility. Daniel loved the huge and beautiful machinery in the factory, and could not resist rolling up his sleeves and helping the Singhalese engineers when it broke down. Machinery was so much easier to deal with than people. There was always a precise set of reasons why a machine may not be working, and there were always completely logical solutions. People were slippery and elusive, changeable and moody. You thought you understood them and then found out that you did not. You thought they loved you, and then they suddenly turned spiteful or indifferent.
 
Daniel enjoyed the sheer reasonableness of the machinery, but he also enjoyed the brotherhood of mechanics, and he reflected quite often that he had more in common, and more enjoyment, with the engineers than he did with those British people who congregated at the club. He had picked up some Singhalese, in addition to the Tamil of the tea workers, and was finding that the more languages you know, the better you understand your own. He realised that languages divide the world up differently from each other. He was half French, and had often wondered why it was that his French personality was different from his British one. In French he was more emphatic and rhetorical. Somebody had told him once that in Russian there was no word for blue. There was bound to be a word for pushrod, or tappet, though.
 
It was very fortunate for him that he had the company of Hugh Bassett, who had spent his war flying Sopwith triplanes and Camels over France, in the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS had been operating out of airfields alongside the Royal Flying Corps, and they had an inexhaustible amount to talk about, to mull over, to repeat. Both had binged beyond the borders of sanity, knew the same jokes and ribald songs, had overflown the same strip of desolation month after month; fought the same battle to keep flying sickness disorder at bay, to remain optimistic, to perform over and over again the impossible trick of trampling their own fear underfoot every time they sprinted to the cockpit. Daniel wondered if he had ever been truly courageous at all, but had rather been seduced by the wondrous beauty and excitement of flying, consoled by the airman’s simple fatalism. If today’s the day, then today’s the day. Goodbye, world, it was good to know you. All I ask is to die a clean death, one that’s not by burning.
 
But now he and Hugh, and the rest of those who had survived, had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with. Some became drunks; others fell quiet and imprisoned themselves inside themselves; some foresaw a brave new world and strode out towards it; others returned to what they had been before, and turned the war into the memory of an outrageous dream from which they had at last awoken. Most were as proud of what they had done as they were amazed to be yet alive.

Author

© Ivon Bartholomew
Louis de Bernières is the author of many award-winning novels, including Birds Without Wings, Corelli’s Mandolin, The Dust That Falls from Dreams, Notwithstanding, A Partisan’s Daughter, Red Dog, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord, The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, and The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts. Selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993, de Bernières lives in England. www.louisdebernieres.co.uk View titles by Louis de Bernieres

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