THIS REAL NIGHT by Rebecca West
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It differs from Dickens in lacking a deathbed."" So wrote critic Elizabeth Janeway just under 30 years ago, reviewing The Fountain Overflows, the first novel of West's projected trilogy about the Aubrey family in Edwardian and Georgian London. Here, in a second volume assembled from West's unfinished manuscript, the sense of a latter-day Dickens is again rich and potent--and now complete, since the finale of this stately, tragicomic novel is one of the most harrowingly sustained deathbed scenes in post-Dickens fiction. Narrator Rose Aubrey picks up her story in 1910: ne'er-do-well Papa Aubrey has now disappeared, and is eventually presumed dead; heroic Mamma (a once-famous concert pianist) is muddling through with her customary dignity and innocence; eldest sister Cordelia is beautiful yet edgy and insecure; Rose and her twin-sister Mary are headed, on scholarship, for music schools; beloved younger brother Richard Quin is precocious, commanding, tender yet somehow aloof; serene cousin Rosamund completes the household. And, though terribly conscious of convention (""We might have been four brightly painted robots""), the Aubrey girls--especially Rose and Mary--have a strong sense of the famfly's fall from social grace, of the horrors of conformity, of the limited world they live in. (""A child is an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness."") A series of fine set-pieces, then, takes the Aubreys more and more out into new territories. There's a comic yet dreadful outing to lunch at the palatial home of Mr. Morpurgo, the family's wealthy Jewish benefactor: along with dear Mr. M.'s treasures the Aubreys also view the fierce awfulness of a truly unbearable marriage--thanks to Mrs. Morpurgo's chilling, embarrassing behavior. Next comes a largely cheery--yet shadowed--evocation of the Aubreys' chumship with tavernkeeper Uncle Len (a gypsy, as it turns out after a tavern melee) and barmaid Lily (whose sister is in prison for husband-murder). Then pianists Rose and Mary begin their advanced studies--with a growing awareness of what a genuinely first-class career would demand. And the novel's second half moves into the first days of the Great War: the utterly conventional marriage of moody Cordelia, with oh-so-proper in-laws (""They doted on us as Wordsworth doted on his cottagers. . . It is ironical that at the same time we were feeling towards them like unscrupulous horse-dealers who have sold a dangerous horse to an urban simpleton""); the mellowing of flinty Rose and flintier Mary (""Much of the original brutality is gone,"" murmurs Mamma); Richard Quin's enlistment and death in combat; and Mamma's ghastly death--marked by physical agony (""Now she was a monkey that had been shot by a hunter"") and spiritual questionings. A powerful procession of dense, flavorful family/society vignettes--moving inexorably from comedy to tragedy, studded with West-ian aphorisms (on women's lot, on men's perfidy), and fascinatingly poised between open-hearted sentiment and dry, cutting irony.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking