The Long Afternoon, by Giles Waterfield (Penguin)

Menton, 1912. A young English couple, Henry and Helen Williamson, inspect and impulsively buy a large, attractive house overlooking the sea. Here they will live for the next 28 years, their long afternoon.

Giles Waterfield’s delicately nuanced novel of upper-middleclass English living abroad is reminiscent of E.M. Forster’s Room With A View, with elements too of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Based on the lives of Waterfield’s grandparents, the novel is a portrait of a marriage and an era.

The Williamsons’ relentless round of cocktails, tennis matches, excursions, amateur theatricals, afternoon teas, and elaborate dinner parties – the whole Georgian horror – is at one level risible, and would lend itself readily to a satirical treatment. Remarkably, and admirably, Waterfield is not satirical. Nor is he sentimental. The tone is detached, often wry, but not judgemental.

Detachment is achieved by distancing – much of the Williamsons’ story is told from the perspective of their eldest son, Charles, looking back after the Second World War, and from the letters or diary entries of guests the Williamsons have to stay. These less charitable voices have their say, but behind them is a wiser presence, encompassing their views but also seeing beyond them.

Mrs Williamson’s hypochondria – cosseted by servants, she nonetheless takes, on doctor’s advice, a weekly jour de repos – extends to an obsessive concern about her husband’s health. His acquiescence results in a life of thwarted accomplishment: early retirement from a promising career in the colonial service; an uncompleted book; irritation, frustration, but also love.

The Williamsons’ choice of leisure over a life of purpose is mitigated by their desire to do good – and if they don’t do as much good as they might, they at any rate do no harm. The First World War is the sound of distant shelling, and wounded soldiers to tea. The Great Depression goes unremarked. The rise of Fascism is noted in a minor altercation between their son and Italian border guards, but it is not until the Second World War and the invasion of France that events in the larger world cause the collapse of their smaller one. The Williamsons retreat to Pau, at the foot of the Pyrénées, but their long afternoon is over.

In an afterword, the author says his novel is “not intended as a memoir, nor as a tribute” to his grandparents. Nonetheless there is a gentle pathos in the fictional evocation of these good, not quite useful people.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets