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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last in a film version of A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Book Review
A Handful of Dust (1934)
 by Evelyn Waugh

  A Handful of Dust is the third book by Evelyn Waugh in the 1001 Books Project, and the only one I would recommend to someone else to read. Neither Decline and Fall (1928) nor Vile Bodies (1930) made much of an impression on me.  In fact, prior to reading A Handful of Dust I had to go back and look at the wikipedia entries for both books so I could remember the plot details of each work.

 While still in the vein of light satire that he established as the overriding tone in the first two books, A Handful of Dust packs a heavier wallop, with a plot that includes infidelity, divorce, the tragic death of a young child, and protagonist Tony Last finding himself held captive in the Amazon rain forest by a deranged settler who forces him to endlessly re-read Charles Dickens out loud.  Last is an English country gentleman, married to the feckless Brenda.  In the early chapters of the book, Brenda embarks on a reckless affair with "idle parasite" John Beavers.  Like all of Waughs works so far, sympathetic characters are hard to find.

  Tony Last behaves as a passive non entity from first to...last.  His wife is inexplicably motivated to pursue a young man who seems to barely tolerate her.  Her young son, also named John, is killed by a kick to the head from a horse while she is away from their country home.  When she is told by a friend, her first thought is to thank god that it is her son, and not her lover, who is deceased.  AND THAT is all you need to know about the character of Brenda Last.

  After Brenda announces she is done with their marriage, Tony duly goes through the necessary arrangements that precede a divorce in post-World War I England, then backs out when he is informed that Brenda intends to ask for thousands a month in alimony.  He decamps for the Amazon on a whim with a professor who is searching for a lost city.  The trip is a nightmare, his companion dies, and he ends up essentially imprisoned by a deranged settler of English background.

  Brenda is left to her own devices and ends up both poor and apparently single, as the repulsive Beavers is unwilling to wed her without her ex husbands money.  It's a sad ending, and a sad novel. Unlike his first two books, A Handful of Dust is more directly based on his personal experience- his young wife left him, and he himself went to the Amazon, and I think that personal experience gives A Handful of Dust some depth compared to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

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