The Long Afternoon – Giles Waterfield (2001)

A short book (perhaps a long novella?) based in the earlier years of the twentieth century when a young and wealthy couple (a la House of Mirth characters) move to the French Riviera after having worked with the British Foreign Service in India and suffering tragedy there. Additionally, the wife is a full-time professional hypochondriac and insists on a quiet and indulgent life in a small Mediterranean town with a suitable English ex-pat community who all strive to recreate the idle life of the Raj Brits.

Organized year by year chronologically and interspersed with straight-forward prose and letters from various people and friends outside the family, the Williamsons (as the couple is named) live a sheltered life with a view of the sea on one side of the house and a steep cliff or mountain on the other. As one character notes, “For those who climb it, the mountain is a fun challenge; for those who cannot,  they are prison walls” – and, as life progresses and the family do their minimal work for various causes (including WWI), there is a sense of borrowed time, of foreboding and foreshadowing. Not a big surprise for modern readers, but Mr. and Mrs. Williamson (or Henry and Helen if you’re being casual about it) are blindly unaware (or ignore) the world events around them. You can feel, as a reader, as though you are watching a car crash happen in slow motion.

Additionally to the oncoming ominous world events (such as WWII etc.), the family has its own battles to contend with, battles between the two brothers and a battle between the eldest son and the parents as the kids grow up.  It’s more of an uncomfortable rejection of the idle rich lifestyle than rejection of actual people (although Helen receives some uncomfortable comments at times), and this lifelong tension causes more rifts – it’s not just Europe that is falling apart.

One interesting touch was that as the unrest became closer and Williamsons gradually realized that life was never going to be the same, the style of writing reflects the unrest in their minds: long, rambling sentences which run on and on and then suddenly change to topics to a related but very different thread similar to dreaming… And this unstable world must have seemed to be a bad dream for the couple when compared with the stability and predictability of their earlier comfortable routines. This was an effective writing technique by Waterfield which worked really well and was quite unexpected by this reader.

This was a good read especially when it was completed in close succession with Wharton’s HoM and the various history books that I have been delving in to. It seems that the more widely I read, the easier it is to see the multiple connections between disparate aspects of life – rather like switching from old TV to the new hi-def image: lots of details that I just didn’t see before.

Good sudden ending which fits with the characters. Nice one.

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