In October I reviewed the first two movements of Anthony Powell's saga A Dance to the Music of Time. As I mentioned earlier, I read the four volumes in the early 1980s and revisited them this year via the newly produced audiobooks. Today, I'll talk about the final two parts. Although I include no spoilers, I'll assume that you either read my earlier review or have read the first two books.
The third movement, sometimes called Autumn, covers the six years Britain was involved with World War II. Nick Jenkins, around whom the books revolve, has a noncombat assignment, but the toll of the war is ever-present. I think this is one of the best books I've read that captures the many random results of the war on ordinary British citizens. The effect is strengthened because we have been following the characters for almost 20 years of their lives.
Two areas stand out. First is how men and women are transformed by their newfound status as part of the British war machine. While some characters bask in their sudden positions of power, others accept that their prewar social standing no longer has meaning. The other aspect of the war that Powell nails, is the randomness of death caused by the Blitz. Chance decisions meant the difference between life and death. The person you had lunch with could be dead by dinner. Powell brings the war down to a personal level, and you won't soon forget it.
The fourth movement (Winter) begins just after the war and takes us into the early 1960s, when the world is once again seeing major social and political changes. In this volume, Nick Jenkins and his cohort are facing middle age. Some are settling into the comfortable years of their life, while others are going through midlife crises.
Soon after the war, it is clear to Nick that the UK will never be the same. What are the new social expectations and how will people in the arts manage to find a way to make a living? We meet new characters and find some old friends in surprising situations. This is a bittersweet ending to Powell's monumental work; people still dance to the music of time, though the tempo and steps and participants may change.
I highly recommend the entire series of books to readers who like character-driven works and to those who are interested in an exploration of England from the early twentieth century through to the brink of modern times. Read the books in print or enjoy them as wonderfully read by Simon Vance. As I say in my reviews for AudioFile magazine, Vance has the capability of bringing the characters alive while giving you room to form your own opinions of the individuals and to make your own emotional connections to the story.
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