Tony Last is the quintessential English squire. He lives for the family home, spending all he has to keep it going. He goes to church twice on Sundays and hosts the local hunt, although he does not ride himself. He enjoys his quiet life even though it bores his wife.
So Brenda starts an affair with the totally worthless John Beaver, a boy who lives with his mother and tries to persuade people to let him come to parties as an alternative to working; his mother arranges interior decorating for her society friends for outrageous commissions. But Brenda becomes obsessed with Beaver.
Tony trusts her. When, in tragic circumstances, he discovers her betrayal (this is about the middle of the book), he seeks to arrange an honourable divorce but she tries to double-cross him seeking outrageous alimony and he decides instead to go abroad. He goes on an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city (I was irresistibly reminded of the 'Lost city of Z' which chronicles the obsession with Amazon exploration between the wars). Will he return?
This was an odd sort of book. It started as a typical Waugh comedy, poking fun at the manners of the upper classes. Half way through it lurches into tragedy as Waugh explores the consequences of Brenda's casual infidelity. Even then, as Tony seeks a divorce, we enjoy farce. The last section, exploring in Brazil, is no longer funny. Although the situation, and the people, are absurd and ridiculous, it is a life and death struggle and too sinister for Waugh's normal superficial touch.
In many ways this makes the book. The comedy is witty but insubstantial but Waugh is able to handle the horror behind the clown's mask. His characterisation of a father reacting to the death of his son, whilst in one sense poking fun at the British stiff upper lip, is sensitive and beautifully drawn. There are some marvellous descriptions ("He was prematurely, unnaturally stout, and he carried his burden of flesh as though he were not yet used to it; as though it had been buckled on to him that morning for the first time and he were still experimenting for its better adjustment"). It is slightly marred by racism ("This place stinks of Yids, said Baby" and later descriptions of niggers). But generally this is a great and well-written story.
September 2013; 221 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57