Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres

Some books people tell you that you simply must read and yet you simply don’t. One book that my Gran has always enthused about and even my mother has always said I must read (both are book obsessed, the later less so at the moment) is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I don’t know if it’s the fact so many people have said that it is wonderful that has made me hold off (overhype can be a terrible thing) or the fact that Nicholas Cage is in the film, which I haven’t seen, and therefore I sadly associate the book with an actor I cant stand, either way I have held off from the book and the author. However when the lovely people at Harvill Secker sent me the new Louis De Bernieres book which is about a village filled with unusual crazy characters I couldn’t hold myself back from reading it almost instantly.

Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn’t a memoir it’s a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.

It was a day in middle March, of the kind that for early risers begins sunny and uplifting, but which for late risers has already degenerated into the nondescript gloom that causes England to be deprecated by foreigners. The rooks were breaking off the ends of willow twigs and building their nests with raucous incompetence, most of the twigs ended up on the ground below, whence the birds could never bother to retrieve them. The box hedges were in blossom, causing some people to ring the gas board, and others to wonder what feline had pissed so copiously as to make the whole village smell of cat piss. Out on the roads, squashed baby rabbits were being dismantled by magpies, and frogs migrating to their breeding ponds were being flattened into very large and thin batrachian medallions that would, once dried out, have made excellent beer mats.

The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie… in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.

Though this isn’t just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was ‘getting to know the neighbours’ as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre’s of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.

There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn’t a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.

The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was ‘Rabbit’, which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.

I thought this book was fantastic, it made me laugh out loud, had me on the verge of tears and everything in between. It has also made me want to pack up my London flat and move off into some small random village somewhere and embrace myself in all village life has to offer, maybe not now though, something to look forward to in my retirement. I have noticed I do love a good village based read Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ had me entranced, and I have two more on my bedside table that are village based. ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield as recommended by Elaine of Random Jottings and P.D James ‘Cover Her Face’ the latter being a slightly morbid take on village life after someone is murdered at a village fete. What other village based quirky fiction is out there?

I think I may have to give in to the charms of De Bernieres words more often now and may have to get my hands on a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin finally. Has anyone else out there read it? What did you make of it (no spoilers please)? Oh and how could I forget if you would like to win a copy of the book do pop by tomorrow before the Sensation Season Sunday post (its Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon this weekend) as there will be a little village based competition and giveaway. Now your thoughts on village fiction and Louise De Bernieres please!

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24 Comments

Filed under Harvill Secker Books, Louis De Bernieres, Random House Publishing, Review

24 responses to “Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres

  1. This went straight to my wish list after reading Verity’s (The B Files) review! It’s not available in the US, so a Book Depository order may be placed soon. Corelli’s Mandolin is an all-time favorite. However, when I finally got a particular bookish friend to read it, she hated it…and it’s become something of a standing joke between us! I still think you should give Captain Corelli a try though.

    • Oh I shall pop over and see Verity’s review very shortly as I do enjoy what she has to say about books. I think Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is one of those books that people either really love or really hate. I am holding out for CCM if I see the latest stunning cover anywhere cheap.

  2. I have a copy of this book too and bumped it up the list after reading Verity’s review and now yours. I loved Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when I read it about a decade ago; I really enjoyed the different narrative strands especially those by Mussolini and “l’omosessuale”, which I found riotously funny and poignant, respectively.

    • I didnt realise that CCM was funny, my Gran suddenly annouced how much humour it had in it when I was on the phone to her this weekend. I thought it was a very serious war book, so just goes to show.

  3. Interesting… I got offered this book for review and turned it down on the basis that I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and HATED it! I read it after I had been to Kephalonia on holiday (where the book is set — it seemed kind of naff to see every second person around the swimming pool reading it!), thinking it would rekindle some memories of a fantastic trip and a fantastic island, but sadly not. Too contrived and sentimental for my liking. That was about nine years ago now…

    • I don’t know whether I should now say ‘ oh do give it a go Kim’ or not. I would say if the opportunity arises again then maybe grab a copy. I loved it partly beacuse of the quirkiness and also because after some of the read of late I have needed some light relief, I wasnt expecting the darkness which creeps in and its been a pleasant if slightly emotional surprise.

  4. Darla LaRoche

    Louise Penny has a wonderful mystery/detective series set in a small village called Three Pines located between Montreal, Canada and the New York , USA border. The villagers are quirky and interesting and the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is multifaceted. There is a haunted house that features in two of the mysteries, several artists, poets, B&B owners, a wonderful bookstore, etc. I would also love to pack up and move to a village and immerse myself in that kind of a lifestyle.

  5. I’ve not read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but listened to A Partisan’s Daughter on audio earlier this year, and I was quite entertained. There were laugh out loud moments…just the sarcastic humor that I absolutely love.

  6. Kim

    Every time I go into my local bookstore I see a copy of A Partisan’s Daughter which I often pick up and then put down again. Having read your review of Notwithstanding and the comments above I am going to buy it next time I am in there and give it a read.
    I loved this review, Simon and enjoyed the small excerpt from the book, too. It brought back such fond memories of when we lived in a small Stafforshire village many years ago, so this book has made it to my wish list. Thank you!

    • Which small Staffordshire village, my mum lives in Staffordshire… or is it Shropshire? I get them all confused.

      I am now quite keen to give everything De Berniere’s related a whirl after this as I totally loved it, I must hold back a bit though.

  7. Jacqui

    I loved Capatain Corelli and would never watch the film as I know it could not match up and would urge you to give it a try but first maybe try his earlier books starting with ‘The War Of Don Emmanuels Nether Parts’ – the first of a trilogy – wonderful.

  8. This one sounds wonderful! And perfect for as I am mourning the English countryside after arriving back in Australia! I haven’t read Corelli but I have read Birds Without Wings (I think that is the correct full title) and I absolutely LOVED it.

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  11. *ears burning* – thanks for popping over to see my review of Notwithstanding; and for reviewing it – I really want to have another read of it (but I lent it to my boyfriends Mum). I’m still feeling nervous about the other LdB books; somehow Captain Corelli doesn’t really appeal, so I need to maybe start by reading one of his novels set in England.

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  15. christian c

    The best Louis de Bernieres book by far is the epic Birds Without Wings – you`ll like it, I`m sure. It has all the heart of Notwithstanding but an incredible scope and once I read it, it never quite left me. It`s a big book though!

  16. Alu Basu

    Louis de B is a crafty compassionate comic genius. Your critique of Notwithstanding is the only right one I’ve read. Seen a few. Of course it’s a brilliant novel. Crafty writer leaves the reader to discover that while the blurbs just sell short stories. Rich elegy on an expired way of life. Superb subtle structure rising to incredible emotional highs from humble pastoral beginnings. Keep CCM for later. Forget the film. Start with the trilogy – Don Emmanuel, Cardinal Guzman, Don Vivo. The last the weakest. Amazing overall. You will enjoy sleuthing the interwoven connects. Have bought but not yet read Birds or Red Dog. Can’t find Sunday Morning. Partisan’s Daughter is readable if you’re a fan. Which I am. Carry on Louis. More. More. I am as hungry for your stories as the 300 year old woman was for food.

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