Linked short stories evoking a small British village celebrate—and mourn—middle England as it perhaps was in the central decades of the 20th century.
De Bernières (The Dust That Falls From Dreams, 2015, etc.), known mainly for his historical novels, notably Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), grew up in a village in the southeast of England and pays tribute here to the bright memories he holds of the natural world, the quirky folk, and the unique trades and dialects of that time and place. The stories, written over almost a decade, are good-humored and indulgent, as apparently is the fictional village of Notwithstanding, where class rules are observed and eccentricity is accepted. “The Girt Pike,” a standout tale that captures the essence of the book, describes stouthearted 11-year-old Robert, who catches a near-mythical fish, thereby shaping his own character and future. In “All My Everlasting Love,” another boy, Peter, in the urgent throes of puberty, fails to connect with his girlfriend but while waiting contemplates “the England that the English used to love, when England was still loved by the English.” Pets feature large in other tales—a cat whose death disrupts a dinner party in “Colonel Barkwell, Troodos and the Fish”; a dog whose peculiar fate brings on a burst of hysteria in “Mrs Griffiths’ Part-Time Job.” Elsewhere there are majors and baronets, a hedging-and-ditching man, a spy, a smelly peasant, repeated mentions of treasured, long-disappeared British cars, and tributes to bits of peerless British equipment, like the Intrepid Prince Regent fishing reel Robert is given for catching the pike. This community of sorts also includes ghosts, like the dead family in “This Beautiful House,” all part of the fond, backward-looking insubstantiality of the book’s world.
Mild and nostalgic, a fictionalized expansion of childhood memories that harks back to seemingly safer, simpler times.