Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh

Staff review by Chris Saliba

First published in 1934 when Evelyn Waugh was in his early thirties, A Handful of Dust is considered one of his best novels.

Tony Last and his wife Brenda live at Hetton Abbey, a huge, impractical country property that, through the British system of primogeniture, Tony has inherited. Hetton Abbey is in a rather sorry state of decay. Money is needed to cover just basic repair work, which means general finances for the couple are a bit tight. Meanwhile, Brenda is growing tired of her marriage. To get away she takes a small flat in London. Tony agrees to this, even though it is another expenditure, not realising that his wife is actually growing tired of him. Brenda has also taken up with another man, John Beaver, a mummy's boy and ne'er do well. He seems an improbable match for Brenda, but she is flighty and restless and seeking escape.

When a great tragedy befalls the couple, it doesn't bring them closer together, but ensures their total separation. Tony decides on becoming a bit of an explorer, and ends up in bizarre circumstances in the Brazilian jungle, while Brenda's love life takes a few more unexpected twists and turns.

A Handful of Dust reads like a 1930s madcap society adventure, or even satire. The plot moves at a very quick speed. Waugh's pacing and economy are amazing. He packs a lot into his story, excludes anything that's not necessary and never lets the reader get bored for one minute. In fact, the story moves at such a clip that there's always a danger that the narrative could come off the rails, but it's the author's great skill to keep everything moving like clockwork. The technique and assurance are dazzling.

Mention should also be made of his characters and dialogue, probably some of the best a reader could ever hope for. He manages to brilliantly capture individual people in full flight with such economy. The “he said, she said” of typical dialogue writing is really pared back and often there are passages where it isn't even explicitly explained who is speaking, but you just know because the personalities come alive  in the words. Amazing.

All of this colour and movement, though, perhaps disguises a far more serious intent. The novel covers a lot of territory: class, money, politics, society, married relations, contemporary cultural norms, British imperialism etc. etc. Waugh is a very sharp observer and nothing escapes his eye. While A Handful of Dust doesn't moralise, it raises many questions. One reading of A Handful of Dust probably won't suffice, as the text secretly harbours more moral complexity than it at first lets on.

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