Sunday 11 September 2016

Book Review: A Handful of Dust

I picked up A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh at the local Community used book sale on the
recommendation of my friend Daniel.  I've never read Waugh before, but I assume he recommended the book based on my love of Jane Austen and other British writers.  

Like Pride and Prejudice, A Handful of Dust focuses three or four families in a country village (as well as in London).  Tony and Brenda Last are the Lord and Lady of Hetton Abbey, an extensive home and grounds rebuilt in the Gothic Style, but with "rather a shortage of bathrooms." (Waugh, 11.)  While Tony loves the country life, his wife of seven years is growing restless.  Enter John Beaver, an impoverished young gentleman with no work and little sense.  He spends most of his days waiting by the telephone to be invited to various lunches, dinners and parties when someone else can't make it.  He mistakes Tony's general invitation to visit Hetton as an actual invitation and shows up for the weekend when Tony and Brenda think they have the house to themselves.  Brenda is friendly, but Tony is continually rude without meaning to be.  Shortly after, Brenda decides to take up a small flat in London and begins an affair with Mr. Beaver.

This is certainly different from my other favourites including Austen and the Brontes, mostly in that it is more modern.  But also in that it is more wholly satirical.  At one point I wondered how Waugh could stand to write about such deplorable characters that not even their creator could love, but then I started to develop a bit of a soft spot for some of them.  Even though they are hideously self-involved, greedy and insensitive, they are completely oblivious to their faults.  I actually became quite fond of Tony Last, which was a mistake.  I found the ending quite grim on his behalf.

I also had some trouble with the death of John Last, who is only a child and quite well drawn as such.  It's fine to mock the petty habits of the rich but to kill off one of their children seems rather cruel.  However, it was a necessary catalyst for the rest of the characters and events of the novel.

I have mixed feelings about the book.  I laughed out loud several times, but couldn't help wondering if Evelyn Waugh would paint me so ridiculous.  Did he like anyone at all?  The book went in strange and unpredictable directions, the writing was smooth and I found I'd read it all much more quickly than I imagined.  I'll leave it up to you to decide if you will pick up this novel.

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