Saturday, June 07, 2008

book review - The Kindly Ones


A good storyteller will start with a theme and then echo it throughout the work and then finish by reminding the reader of the opening strains of the book in the final pages. Anthony Powell does that here referring to a lesson from his tutor about Greek mythology and the furies, mythical figures that circled in times of war.

The hope is that the furies, the kindly ones will not be heralding war. They are first mentioned at the start when Powell is remembering his childhood living with his parents near Colchester in 1914. They then reappear as the Second World War goes beyond the hoped for peace of the Munich agreement and into something more serious.

In a way this book marks a change from some of the others because it is as if the band has stopped and a more somber music has started but some of the characters have not noticed.

So as a result Peter Templer is still carrying on with women and making his money in the City and Moreland is struggling to keep his marriage together, and appears to finally fail and lose his wife to Sir Magnus Donners who is also continuing to carry on much as normal.

Ironically the barometer that shows things have changed comes from Widmerpool who appears in uniform when it is unfashionable to make the point that he is ready for war.

The past still manages to come round and interrupt and divert Jenkins – with jean Templer’s husband taking him out for an evening -but at this half way stage in the 12 book opus this is more about closing certain doors before new ones are opened. The most dramatic illustration of this is the death of Uncle Giles, who has been popping up in most of the other books. He will pop up no more except in memory after dying at a boarding house run by the ex-cook who used to be employed in the house near Colchester. It is those sorts of coincidences that make Powell’s world do circular.

As Jenkins starts to realise that he is going to have to play some sort of role in the forthcoming war he starts to anxiously contact people who he thinks might be able to help him. One of those is Widmerpool but his old acquaintance cannot help but exploit his position and make Nick feel idiotic and helpless. A chance encounter might get him into the army but that question mark is hanging over until the next book.

Throughout the first six books there has been a theme about honour and the role of some of the men in the First World War. Peter Templer’s racing car driving brother-in-law never managed to live down his sense of failure for not having fought. Jenkins has that image in his head when he starts to try to get his role in the army firmed up from just a name on a reserve list.

There is a sense of growing up here not just in the character Jenkins but also in the country. The prospect of war is something that might be ignored by some, exploited by others or embraced by a few but it forces a change and a reaction.

The days sketched out so well in the first couple of books of debutante dances and a care-free social scene seem long behind and in terms of changing the pace and setting things up this book manages to do just that. It seemed to be going backwards with a long opening chapter about the past but the echoes of the war of 1914 become almost deafening by the time 1939 comes round.

Version read – Flamingo paperback

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