Published on :March 26th,2015
Published by: Harvill Secker
Genre: Historical Fiction,Family Saga,Adult
Set in the early 1900s England,We That Are Left is a social commentary on the impact of the First World War ,the result of the women’s suffrage movement,the beginning of a new age in Physics and the effect of dysfunctional home lives on children.Starting with a funeral in the prologue,this tragic story has a melancholic tone from the outset which leads to a frustrating and pitiful ending.
It is 1910 and ten year old Oskar Grunewald is awestruck by the books in the massive library housed in the equally majestic Victorian castle,called Ellinghurst,home to the Melville family in the English countryside.Fascinated by numbers but at odds with words,he is considered weird and avoided by the Melville children,comprising of Theo,the heir to the Melville baronetcy, and his younger sisters,Phyllis and Jessica.As the years pass and the Great War calls upon all the men excepting the underaged,the old and the physically disadvantaged for service,the social scene in the country takes a new turn when a great number of these men are killed in war. People of German origin who’ve long since made England their home and are for all purposes British,are questioned about their loyalty to the Crown and subjected to the wrath of the public.During this time when Oskar Grunewald,now Oscar Greenwood(named changed to hide his half-German parentage),visits Ellinghurst he is shocked by the stark difference that Theo’s death in the war has brought down to the place.Where once it was filled with guests and laughter all the time,entertained by his Godmother Eleanor,the mistress of the house,now,it is filled with deep sighs of loss and mourning with the family matriarch shunning society and taking refuge in the occult in the hopes of connecting with her beloved son.
Both the war and Theo’s death cause an upheaval in the lives of Oscar and the remaining Melville children.Oscar becomes confused with his Britishness,disenchanted by mathematics because of a prejudiced math teacher,drawn to new age physics both out of interest and because of being ostracized by his German hating ‘pure’ English classmates at school,and develops a crush on Jessica as he hits puberty.Meanwhile,Phyllis who was a couple of years older than Oscar and Jessica,takes her nose out of her beloved books and leaves to serve the nation as a nurse.And Jessica who was always wilful,becomes unruly and wild with no parental supervision.Add a couple more years,at the end of the Great War,they,along with all the other survivors of the war have to come to terms with the new state of affairs in the country and learn to go on with their lives.
But more than the central plot of the story,it is the personal journeys of the main characters,Oscar,Phyllis and Jessica,that make the novel most engaging.Phyllis and Jessica have only the Melville name in common but radically different personalities.While Phyllis belongs to the progressive era of women,preferring to read as a child and later endeavours to lead an independent and find an identity of her own,Jessica is a romantic,somewhat vain,an attention seeker who relies on others,particularly the male species to provide her a better life.It is interesting to study the contrasting nature of the two sisters;where one depended on her intellectual faculties,the other relied on her beauty;particularly,how Jessica still didn’t want to let go the comfortable existence and norms of the past,whereas Phyllis welcomed the change in women’s status and role in society brought on by the suffrage movement and the war.
The sisters loved one another very much but could never comprehend each other’s outlook on life.
‘Of all the infuriating things about Phyllis perhaps the most infuriating was the way she always behaved as though books were real and real life just a story somebody had made up without thinking.’ –Jessica on Phyllis
“Then do something.Make your own life,instead of waiting like Rapunzel for the last of the knights-errant to ride up on his white charger and offer you his.” –Phyllis to Jessica when she complained about life being unfair after the war and worried about her future.
Then there is Oscar,the quiet boy with a head for numbers,who’d gaze with wonder at the encyclopedias in the Melville’s library when he was ten and who grew up to be a scholar of Physics at Cambridge.Born to a German musician father and an English women’s rights activist mother,the days of the Great War led to a serious identity crisis for the poor boy.With no recollection of his father who’d died when he was little, and no connection to his German roots except for a few German phrases taught to him by his mother,he was confused and ashamed when both the boys at his boarding school and his math teacher tortured him for being German.
Every time he looked at something and the German word for it came into his head first he felt cold inside,as if the boys at school were right and he was the enemy after all.It frightened him that he might do something German in his sleep.
As we follow him through the years,witness him experiencing his first kiss,understand the difference between infatuation and true love,see him lose a part of himself when his mother dies,one cannot but empathize with this intelligent,sensitive soul left vulnerable and ignorant to the ways of the world,and despair at the ultimate tragedy befalls him because of his association with the Melvilles.
For the most part,Clare Clark has created an almost hypnotic and tragic family saga which is very compelling and depicts the period it is set in,in elaborate detail.This could easily have been one of the better written if not the best historical fiction of this year had it not been for some serious factual errors found in the book.First and foremost what really irked me was calling Moseley’s Law (in X-ray spectra) Melville’s Law for the sake of the story.Here,Sir Aubrey Melville’s younger brother,Henry Melville,Jessica’s uncle,is a renowned physicist who’d discovered the Melville’s Law,a very important discovery which opens the path for further research in atomic physics. From his early death in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 to the law being passed on his premature death to exempt persons of scientific importance from joining the war,and his alma mater University of Manchester, it is evident that the character of Henry Melville is based on the English Physicist,Henry Melville.I can appreciate the depiction of a fictional character inspired by a real life person and know that there are also fictional stories on historical figures which fall in the alternate history sub-genre.But what I cannot accept is the deliberate misrepresentation of scientific history.It is nothing but a kind of plagiarism,when all of Moseley‘s contemporaries such as Rutherford and Bohrs are mentioned correctly but his theory is credited to someone else.To my knowledge,I have never come across such extreme misrepresentation of scientific facts in any historical fiction so far,but as a student of science I cannot in good heart condone such action.Especially when there was little need of Henry Melville’s scientific expertise in the story.
And there is also the funny case of Madame Curie being referred to as Pierre Curie’s sister in the story.With all the care taken in laboriously incorporating the other historical details to the plot line,this folly in getting well known scientific facts wrong seems sacrilegious in a historical novel.
Nevertheless,this is a story well told which I believe will be enjoyed more by someone who does not much care about the accuracy of scientific details in fiction.If for nothing else,this novel is indeed worth reading to get to know Oscar Greenwood.
They shall not grow old,as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them,nor the years condemn.At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. -LAURENCE BINYON,September 1914
Synopsis: It is 1910 and to ten-year-old Oskar Grunewald, the Melville family is impossibly, incomprehensibly glamorous. Born into privilege, buttressed by inherited wealth, their certainties are as unshakeable as the walls of their Victorian castle. It is a world to which Oskar, mathematics prodigy and son of a penniless German composer, has no wish to belong. His fascination is all for physics where new scientific discoveries are, for the first time in four hundred years, challenging Newton’s fundamental theories of the universe. But when Theo Melville is killed in the Great War, shattering his family’s lives, Oskar finds himself drawn reluctantly into the gaping hole his death has left behind. As Theo’s two sisters struggle to forge their paths in a world that no longer plays by the old rules, Oskar’s life becomes entwined with theirs in ways that will change all of their futures forever.(via Goodreads)