One might say that The Light Years is just another of those novels on a typical upper class British family that does not appreciate its good fortune. That would do no justice to Howard’s writing at all. The Light Years enchants because of the way she tinkers with family relationships, with the unorthodox, with family and friends of the Cazalets. Not mentioning the fact that Howard writes absolutely beautiful prose.
The Cazalets are a traditional upper class family that has not proven to be immune to the world surrounding their homes. Sons have been seriously wounded in the First World War, daughters-in-law die while giving birth, a granddaughter is abused by her father, another daughter-in-law is the victim of a date rape, the only daughter lives at home and takes care of her parents whilst desperately wanting to join her girlfriend. Do no expect grand gestures and equally grand prose from Howard, she keeps it small and human. Howard writes about the parents, children, grandchildren, their relations and friends with compassion.
Howard regularly changes perspective, in this way ensuring that almost all Cazalets, with the exception of the youngest ones, are the subject once in a while. This change of perspective makes for the image of a large, industrious family in which everyone has his or her place (and hardly any possibility to change this position), in which convention is more important than feeling or showing emotion. The daughthers-in-law will not ask their sons to really tell them what is going on at boarding school despite their hints that all is not well, it does not occur to anyone that a female good friend might be the love of ones live or that the talented granddaughters might thrive at school instead of being home taught (despite the best efforts of their teacher who does recognize their intellectual capabilities). Howard is unmerciful in letting her readers realize that the talented writer and actress will waste away their lives being forced to become housewives and mothers.
The Light Years is the story of a typical upper class British family showing where the conventions, family ties and the stiff upper lip lead to suffering. By having the main part of the novel take place during the summer in the country, sun-drenched, lazy and languid, Howard contrasts the peacefulness of country life to those hidden truths. I look forward to yet three more novels on the Cazalets. I hope that World War Two, despite all its atrocities, will have some Cazalets break free from convention.