So Much Life Left Over

SO MUCH LIFE LEFT OVER

Louis De Bernières

From the acclaimed author of Corelli’s Mandolin: a powerfully evocative and emotional novel, set in the years between the two World Wars, about a closely-knit group of British men and women struggling to cope with the world—and the selves—left to them in the wake of World War I.

They were inseparable childhood friends. Some were lost to the war. The others’ lives were unimaginably upended, and now, postwar, they’ve scattered: to Ceylon and India, France and Germany (and, inevitably, back to Britain)—each of them trying to answer the question that fuels this sweeping novel: “If you have been embroiled in a war…

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From the acclaimed author of Corelli’s Mandolin: a powerfully evocative and emotional novel, set in the years between the two World Wars, about a closely-knit group of British men and women struggling to cope with the world—and the selves—left to them in the wake of World War I.

They were inseparable childhood friends. Some were lost to the war. The others’ lives were unimaginably upended, and now, postwar, they’ve scattered: to Ceylon and India, France and Germany (and, inevitably, back to Britain)—each of them trying to answer the question that fuels this sweeping novel: “If you have been embroiled in a war… what were you supposed to do with so much life unexpectedly left over?” As the narrative unfolds in brief, dramatic chapters we follow the old friends as their paths re-cross or their ties fray, as they test loyalties and love, face survivor’s grief and guilt, adjust in profound and quotidian ways to this newest modern world. And at their center: Daniel (an RAF flying ace) and Rosie (a war-time nurse), their marriage slowly revealed to be built on lies, Daniel finding solace—and, sometimes, family—with other women, Rosie drawing her religion around herself like a carapace. Here too are Rosie’s sisters—a “bohemian,” a minister’s wife, and a spinster; Daniel’s despairing brother; Rosie’s “increasingly peculiar” mother and her genial, secretive father. And as peace once more gives way to war, we see it begin to reshape, yet again, the lives of these beautifully drawn women and men.

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  • Pantheon
  • Hardcover
  • August 2018
  • 288 Pages
  • 9781524747886

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$26.95

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About Louis De Bernières

Louis De BernièresLouis De Bernières is also the author of A Partisan’s Daughter, Birds Without Wings, Red Dog, Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World, Corelli’s Mandolin (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book, 1995), The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book, Eurasia Region, 1992), The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book, Eurasia Region, 1991), and The Dust That Falls from Dreams. He was selected by Granta as one of the twenty Best of Young British Novelists in 1993.

Author Website

Praise

“As with superlative World War I literature from Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy to Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong to Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, the horrors are vividly evoked. De Bernières is adept at describing how lives can be devastated in minutes . . . Powerful . . . Delightful . . . [With] plenty of Dickensian social observation.”—The Independent

“The author drops us right in the trenches, and he shies away from no gruesome detail. But he does it with a delicate touch, weaving a gently evocative story of the war that didn’t end all wars but did wrench open the door to the modern world . . . What makes this a good war novel, though, is not its depictions of conflict but its reckoning with what comes after.”—Time

“A fresh extension of de Bernières’ long-standing interest in the timeless conflicts of love and loyalty . . . Moving [and] poignant.”—The New York Times Book Review

Discussion Questions

1. The dedication to the novel is to the author’s grandparents with the added phrase “who tried to start a new life in Ceylon.” Does knowing that the novel is loosely based on the author’s family affect your reading of the story?

2. The novel is told in brief, episodic chapters (50 in total) with various voices and numerous letters rather than one continuous chronological story. How does this add to the experience of reading the novel?

3. Is the legacy of WWI different for the male and female characters in the book?

4. How are both Archie and Rosie, in very different ways, unable to fully recover and move on with their lives after WWI? About Archie, the narrator says, “There is nothing more soul destroying for a valiant old soldier than to live inside a crippling sense of uselessness” (p. 314). Why is Daniel able to move on, as opposed to his wife and brother?

5. Discuss Rosie and Daniel’s relationship. Why are they both unhappy and unfulfilled in their marriage? What power do they have over the other and how do they exert it?

6. How does the trauma of their baby being born deformed and dying soon after affect Rosie and Daniel similarly and differently?

7. If you’ve read de Bernières’s earlier novel, The Dust that Falls from Dreams, how have the various characters grown and how have they stayed the same from that book to this one? How has the war affected the characters and how have they moved on?

8. How is setting a character in the novel? How does the English countryside with its large houses and gardens contrast with the Ceylon landscape with its tea plantations and colonial houses and surrounding workers’ huts?

9. Discuss the role of technology and the changing and new machines that emerged during and after the war. How have motorcycles, cars, and airplanes changed the lives of the characters and society in the novel?

10. How is So Much Life Left Over a book about marriages, families, and family secrets? Discuss the various marriages represented in the book, and how family secrets affect them.

11. Should Daniel and Rosie divorce? Would they both be better off apart? Should Rosie have married Archie instead? Would either Rosie or Archie have been healthier? Should Rosie have remained single after her beloved died in the war?

12. How do Daniel and Rosie try to salvage their marriage? Or don’t they? With whom do you think the author sympathizes? With whom do you, as the reader, sympathize? Why?

13. Why does Rosie read and destroy Daniel’s letter from Ceylon rather than share it with him? Is her betrayal justified?

14. How did coming-of-age during the war affect these characters—their interests, their personalities, their relationships, and lives?

15. How does Daniel deal with his depression and suicidal thoughts?

16. What does Rosie mean when she says, “Inside one person there are so many different people, and quite often they’re at war with each other . . . We’re all so hard to understand, aren’t we” (p. 132)? Do you agree with this? What does this quote say about Rosie?

17. Describe the differences between Rosie’s parents’ generation and the characteristics of Rosie’s generation. Why does Rosie’s mother put up with her husband’s rampant philandering? Or do you think she didn’t know or care about it? Are appearances the only thing she cares about?

18. What is the general stance on religion in the novel? Discuss one character’s assessment that “Theology is the feeble wisdom of those who are terrified of mystery” (p. 307).

19. And Daniel’s view on religion and life: “If you have no faith, there is no meaning in anything unless you put it there yourself” (p. 325).

20. What is the book saying about empire and colonialism? There’s a line from Gaskell about how her family became so wealthy—“It was the good old golden triangle . . . My wonderful house and my fabulous estate are all the fruit of untold family misery” (p. 159). At a time when the British Empire was starting to collapse the country still had a presence in many places around the world. Why is Archie in the Middle East and Daniel in South Asia?

21. “There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable . . . he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important” (p. 6). Discuss this quote from the beginning of the novel and how it relates to the novel as a whole.

22. What did you think of the ending of So Much Life Left Over?

Excerpt

1 Gun Snap 

The crackle of gunshots bounced between the mountainsides, the percussion fading with each return of echo. Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett sat side by side on a small level patch, playing gun snap. They had on the table before them two decks of cards, a box of ammunition and two Mark VI service revolvers. Fifteen yards away was a gibbet with two rows of six tin cans suspended from it on pieces of string.

The idea was to be the first person to put a bullet through every can. Sometimes, for a change, they went down to the valley, threw bottles out into a lake, and sank them with rifles. These were fine ways for two old fighter pilots to pass the last hour of the day as the mist rose up and supper was cooked in the bungalows.

Daniel Pitt and Hugh Bassett suffered from the accidie of not being at war. Even in a land as beautiful and surprising as Ceylon, they missed the extremes of experience that had made them feel intensely alive during the Great War, in spite of its penumbra of death. Neither of them missed the killing, and if they went out after duck or small game, they never returned with more than their families could eat. They had both, many times, seen the way in which the light suddenly goes out of a man’s eyes as he passes out of the world, and it was just the same with an animal. There was no longer any triumph in the kill, the guilt was as intense as it had ever been, but still they yearned for the passionate oblivion of the hunt.

There is a kind of man who, having been at war, finds peacetime intolerable, because he cannot develop the civilian’s talent for becoming obsessed with irrelevant details and procedures. He hates the delays and haverings, the tedious diplomacy, the terrible lack of energy and discipline, and, above all, he hates the feeling that what he is doing is not important.

If you have struggled for the freedom of France, or have fought to keep Zeppelins out of the skies over London, what else can seem important thereafter?

Daniel and Hugh were fortunate to be involved in the manufacture of tea, because everything in that industry depends upon good timing and good teamwork, and strictly understood hierarchies of responsibility. Daniel loved the huge and beautiful machinery in the factory, and could not resist rolling up his sleeves and helping the Singhalese engineers when it broke down. Machinery was so much easier to deal with than people. There was always a precise set of reasons why a machine may not be working, and there were always completely logical solutions. People were slippery and elusive, changeable and moody. You thought you understood them and then found out that you did not. You thought they loved you, and then they suddenly turned spiteful or indifferent.

Daniel enjoyed the sheer reasonableness of the machinery, but he also enjoyed the brotherhood of mechanics, and he reflected quite often that he had more in common, and more enjoyment, with the engineers than he did with those British people who congregated at the club. He had picked up some Singhalese, in addition to the Tamil of the tea workers, and was finding that the more languages you know, the better you understand your own. He realised that languages divide the world up differently from each other. He was half French, and had often wondered why it was that his French personality was different from his British one. In French he was more emphatic and rhetorical. Somebody had told him once that in Russian there was no word for blue. There was bound to be a word for pushrod, or tappet, though.

It was very fortunate for him that he had the company of Hugh Bassett, who had spent his war flying Sopwith triplanes and Camels over France, in the Royal Naval Air Service. The RNAS had been operating out of airfields alongside the Royal Flying Corps, and they had an inexhaustible amount to talk about, to mull over, to repeat. Both had binged beyond the borders of sanity, knew the same jokes and ribald songs, had overflown the same strip of desolation month after month; fought the same battle to keep flying sickness disorder at bay, to remain optimistic, to perform over and over again the impossible trick of trampling their own fear underfoot every time they sprinted to the cockpit. Daniel wondered if he had ever been truly courageous at all, but had rather been seduced by the wondrous beauty and excitement of flying, consoled by the airman’s simple fatalism. If today’s the day, then today’s the day. Goodbye, world, it was good to know you. All I ask is to die a clean death, one that’s not by burning.

But now he and Hugh, and the rest of those who had survived, had so much life left over that it was sometimes hard to cope with. Some became drunks; others fell quiet and imprisoned themselves inside themselves; some foresaw a brave new world and strode out towards it; others returned to what they had been before, and turned the war into the memory of an outrageous dream from which they had at last awoken. Most were as proud of what they had done as they were amazed to be yet alive.

Excerpted from So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernières. Copyright © 2018 by Louis de Bernières. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.