Book Marks: Laura Barnett
Below, Laura Barnett, author of our Fiction Book of the Month, The Versions of Us writes about Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Archie - best friend of third son Rupert, and a long-time confidant of the family - is travelling from London to the country cottage where Rupert’s daughter Clary is living, having come to the startling realisation that he loves her. In the space of a few paragraphs, Archie will find Clary lying asleep on the lawn, will wake her gently, and then learn, to his - and the reader’s - delight, that she loves him, too.
I discovered the Cazalet novels just a few years ago, after reading an interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard - a prolific novelist, who, sadly, died last year - in The Observer. I began, naturally enough, with volume one, The Light Years, and was immediately engrossed, reading all four subsequent books in quick succession.
The series begins in 1937, when Clary and her cousins are still children, and the wealthy, upper-class Cazalets have no reason to believe that these golden days won’t last forever. From there, the books track the family through wartime and beyond, drawing out the diverse experiences - loss, love, joy, and pain - that define their lives, and, by extension, any life.
Howard’s descriptive precision, and use of detail - right down to brands of food and soap-powder, and the names of restaurants and clubs - is remarkable; to read the books is to enter a hypnotic, beautifully realised world, in which the Cazalet characters are so real, so fully embodied, that it becomes difficult to believe they aren’t living, breathing people.
The books had a huge impact on me while I was writing my own debut novel, The Versions of Us. There, in Howard’s writing, was a precise, scalpel-sharp realism, combined with emotional empathy and a lightness of touch: everything that I look for as a reader, and have ever dreamt of achieving as a writer.
Of all the novels’ many wonderful scenes, this is the one that has stayed with me most clearly. Clary is a beautifully drawn character - scratchy and tomboyish as a girl, awkward and unconfident as a woman - and her incipient love for Archie, a plot development that might have felt rather icky in the hands of another writer (growing up, Clary saw Archie as something of a father figure), gives a wonderful sense of satisfaction; of love found, as it so often is, in the most unexpected place.
I held the Cazalet series in my mind, like a talisman, throughout the writing of The Versions of Us, as an example of something to aim for; of how truly the best fiction can draw us into imaginary lives, and make them feel utterly, transportingly real.