Clare Clark’s novel of the dislocations that befall an aristocratic English family during and right after World War I is beautifully written and enjoyable, but the reader has to wonder if it would have been published had we not been living in the age of “Downton Abbey.” Of course it might have, as the popular TV show has plenty of collateral ancestors of its own: Think Brideshead Revisited and those nice books by Nancy Mitford. Still, the full name of one of the characters of We That Are Left includes the name Crawford. It’s not Crawley, but it’s close enough for jazz, as they say.
Other parallels include the noble title and the great old estate that comes with it, both slated to be passed on to a distant cousin—though in this case there are very interesting twists. There’s the feckless head of the family who has, like his fathers before him, mismanaged the place to the point that the death duty taxation will make it unsustainable. There’s the sister who becomes a wartime nurse and the sister who may be good, but is not at all nice. One nod to Brideshead is that part of the story is seen through the eyes of an outsider. That would be Oskar, an Anglo-German math and science prodigy who’s in love first with one sibling, then the other.
But Clark’s novel does its forebears proud, for We That Are Left is engrossing. As in her acclaimed debut, The Great Stink, the characters are vivid and her feel for place is equally superb; the reader experiences the sourness of a London fog, the chill of English rain, the play of light on hair and skin and stone. Clark also seems to know every inch of Cambridge University as well as the arcana of the British system of higher learning. Her sense of humor is as dry as the Queen’s gin and tonic: Consider the banter between one of the sisters and her creepy, aging suitor/boss, or disenchanted Oskar’s fixation on the pimple growing on his former crush’s chin during a soirée.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a tale of the British upper crust without tangled, tormented, transgressive love affairs and buried family secrets. Clark joins a long line of writers who show us that the myth of the British stiff upper lip is indeed just that.