The destinies of the four McCosh sisters and their childhood friends in the aftermath of World War I form the foundation of a multiperspective saga embracing fidelity and fertility, empire, belief, and parental love.
This new hymn to a bygone British era of heroism, engineering skills, and middle-class quirks by de Bernières (Notwithstanding, 2016, etc.) opens in colonial Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka) in 1925, where handsome war hero and flying ace Daniel Pitt has settled with his wife, Rosie, now pregnant with their second child. But this happy marriage is doomed, leaving Daniel eternally questing for love and access to his children. Back in London, Rosie’s sisters, the McCoshes, are forming their futures, too. Ottilie decides to set aside an unrequited passion; Sophie marries her chaplain and opens a school; and Christabel strikes up “an unconventional friendship with a green-eyed artist who comported herself like a man.” These figures are but the core characters in a sprawling cast which also includes two of Daniel’s mistresses (one Ceylonese who bears him a son and one Irish), neither of whom he can marry since Rosie will never divorce him. And there’s more. The McCosh family gardener, Oily Wragge (yes), offers a working-class perspective as both soldier and engineer, and Daniel ends up fathering additional illegitimate children, although that’s nothing compared to the laundry list of mistresses and offspring revealed in Mr. McCosh’s will. Class, punitive marriages (and wives), war—the themes are many and sometimes debatable in this economical yet ambitious narrative that stretches from the scarred setting of the interwar phase to a resumption of conflict and loss in World War II. De Bernières unsettlingly alternates a light comic tone with more serious material and also often slips into clichéd, sentimental characterization. As a result, only the last of the story’s heartaches penetrates deeply.
A readable if off-balance slice of history in which breadth comes at the expense of depth.