I finished reading The Light Years yesterday, and quite liked it, enough that I've already ordered the next book in the series from the library. I'm going to quote a bit of it, which is a lot of what I like. This paragraph comes as they are listening to Neville Chamberlain's radio address about whether there is going to be a war (we're in 1938). And it's very long, so I'm abridging it.
'He looked first at his mother: the Duchy sat absolutely straight with her eyes fixed upon the radio as though Mr. Chamberlain was in the room and speaking to her personally. "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing." He looked at his sister who was reclining on the sofa with Sid sitting on the arm at her feet. They seemed not to be looking at each other, but Sid suddenly handed an ash tray to Rachel to stub out her cigarette. "I would not hesitate to pay even a third visit to Germany if I thought it would do any good." He looked at Polly and Clary, side by side on the floor, arms around their knees: Polly was frowning and biting her bottom lip; Clary, his own daughter, was watching her and as he looked, she rocked her knees so that they touched Polly's. Polly looked up and a tiny smile flitted across Clary's face inhabiting it with such encouragement and love that he was struck by her beauty, felt dazzled and shut his eyes.... Zoe was sitting on the windowsill behind Angela. He blew her a kiss and her look of anxiety softened to unexpected gratitude--an expression he had only ever seen on her face when he gave her a present. He reached his father just as the broadcast came to an end.'
This has certain qualities of a film montage, it's so vivid and lovely, but it is, in a way, better than film. I love how it's this concrete piece of history, but all mixed in with these characters being very distinctly themselves, and their reactions to each other and to the history.
The book begins in the summer of 1937, switches between the numerous members of the Cazalet family, three generations, not to mention their servants and friends. The heads of the family, fondly called the Duchy and the Brig, have a house in Sussex called Home Place, where all their children and grandchildren spend their summer holidays. We see 1937, then skip to the summer of 1938, when everyone returns to Home Place. The cast of characters is enormous, yet every one of them is extremely well defined, and their relationships to each other fascinating.
The melodrama I mentioned earlier as being rather present in the miniseries was not at all in the book. Unlike The Camomile Lawn, another World War II book and miniseries, it definitely feels worth it to both read it and see it. In that book it felt like a novelization of a movie, almost, in that the fact of its being written down didn't really make it more interesting or better. It wasn't poorly written, it just wasn't interestingly written, either. Elizabeth Jane Howard, however, is a lovely writer, with the above quoted paragraph being one of my favourite examples of this.
I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series.