Clare Clark’s new novel We That Are Left opens with a funeral scene. Guided by Clark’s customary discerning narrative, we can immediately feel the tension in the air, a sort of something being not quite right besides the obvious fact of a coffin being lowered into the ground. But there’s something else, a kind of reserved stoicism emanating from the characters present at the funeral, absent of any palpable familial closeness.
Throwing her characters into situations that are less than optimal is however a trademark of Clark’s previous work. In Beautiful Lies, a restless wife sees her life suddenly thrown into a massive turmoil when some of her politician husband’s less-than-honorable antics are revealed. In Savage Lands, a young woman embarks on a journey from France to Louisiana so she can be married to a complete stranger, unaware that soon enough her fantasies of having a life and a husband of her own will not be the rose-tinted fairy tale she anticipated.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that in We That Are Left Clark takes as a focal point the ruin and destruction left by The Great War, which in turn resulted in The Lost Generation. The famous term credited to Earnest Hemingway by Gertrude Stein, for young people who were unfortunate enough to come of age during World War I. And it is four people and one family who unknowingly have been marked as totems for the war-devastated years between 1914 and 1918, that Clark introduces in her story.
The novel begins in 1920 with the prologue and the funeral scene previously described. But the story really starts in 1910 as Jessica and Phyllis Melville (no relation to the famous Melville) wander around their childhood home Ellinghurst, a magnificent English country state that has been in their family for generations. Their loquacious brother Theo constantly overshadows his sisters with his pranks and imposing personality, knowing that he is favored due to his status as the only boy, and heir of Ellinghurst.
Oskar Grunewald (who later changes the spelling of his name to Oscar so he won’t be ostracized for being of German stock), is a shy boy of few words but with a growing love for numbers and science. He is the godson of Sir Aubrey Melville, the pater familias, and a frequent visitor to Ellinghurst. He is fascinated by its magnificent library which holds such formidable treasures like a blue leather-bound Children’s Encyclopaedia.
This is incredibly enticing for young Oskar. So much so that when Jessica once discovers him in the library she taunts and teases him mercilessly, taking the revered book away from Oskar and mockingly stating that she will only give it back if he takes off his pants and shows her “his thing”. Although Oskar vehemently refuses and tells her to go away, Jessica shamelessly lifts her skirt, pulls down her underwear and lets him look at her, calling him a “spineless, bloody milksop” as she pulls her underwear back up and storms out out of the library, leaving a bewildered and confused Oskar behind.
The opposing personalities of the Melville siblings will become a form of prediction in regards to their future choices as adults. Jessica and Phyllis in particular, manage to grasp an independence when they leave Ellinghurst for London that would have been unthinkable before. The war comes to raze not only the life they knew, but also the old-world conventions and traditions that marked their childhood.
The Melvilles and Oscar will have to irrevocably shed the skins of who they were in order to adapt, but also remain in a certain way true to the essence of who they were as children. The older adults too, will forgo who they were before. Sir Aubrey, now is constantly troubled with the dwindling future of Ellinghurst and the family name to the point of obsession while his wife Eleanor throws herself into spiritualism convinced that this way she can contact Theo, who was an early casualty of the war, in the next life.
Clark gives incredibly soulful and intelligent voices to these characters. When Phyllis describes to Oscar the effects of the war on the soldiers, her words are filled with an introspection and wisdom beyond her years: “The ones that make it, they’re like very old men. All their friends are dead, and now they’re just waiting to be dead too, except that they’ve got years and years left of being young.”
As Jessica, Phyllis and Oscar seek to find their way in a world with changing social conventions and immense scientific discoveries, they see in each other powerful allies but also frequently hit a wall their very different personalities. As they experience love, loss, desire and secrets that may either destroy or secure their future, these survivors of a lost generation will climb out of the trenches and create a brand new world.