Review: Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres

Since I first read it for my English Literature A Level, my favourite novel has been Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I’ve never emotionally invested in any other story with such intensity. I also love the way Louis writes – it’s feels so easy and smooth – it flows with lyrical beauty but never seems overwritten and he has such a warm sense of humour that just shines from the page. Maybe I’m a bit in love with him – he does make me feel warm and fuzzy – darker, gritter bits aside. I’ve read his Latin American trilogy and I did enjoy them – if that’s the right word – he carried me on the journey and showed me the horrors of corruption with such wit and grit – Louis de Bernieres is not one to shy away from grizzly truths. However, I felt that in those the balance was a little tipped too much towards these horrors – you cannot love such a book. In Captain Corelli the balance is perfect. But I’m not reviewing it, here. I’m supposed to be talking about Notwithstanding.

Louis de Bernieres’ distinct voice and style sings from the pages of Notwithstanding, as it does in everything he writes. (Did I mention I’m a bit in love with him?) The book is filled with sharp yet affectionate observations, this time of rural Englishmen (and women). He laughs at his characters as you laugh at a loved one – there are no rapists or murderers to attack with his wit and satire, yet the sense of humour is the same as in Captain Corelli. Indeed, there is much less gritty realism and much less of the darker side of humanity. The one, blaring, exception is the myxomatosis-ridden rabbit. As previous readers of Louis de Bernieres would expect, he does not shrink away from the upsetting details. You cannot accuse Louis of ignoring the less pleasant realities of life – death is a big part of the novel and he has no problem killing off many of his characters. Too many authors ignore the fact that sometimes, everything doesn’t work out for the best, that sometimes the hero, or beloved, kind, beautiful young woman dies. This is one of the many reasons I love his work.

Another is his refusal to patronise the reader. In Notwithstanding, there is never any tedious explanation of who is who, who connects to who and how, or anything of that nature. If an explanation flows naturally from the dialogue or narration, it may creep in, but otherwise it does not. When Louis jumps back in time for a chapter, he gives no warning. In fact, I only realised half-way through that it could not be set in the same time as the rest of the book because of the way the characters spoke, dressed, lived, etc. This was a little disorientating but I’d rather that than be treated like an idiot who can’t work it out for herself.

I mentioned earlier that Louis has no problem killing off his characters. Perhaps it is easier in Notwithstanding because he has such a huge cast of characters to play with and pretty much all are given equal weight. There is no protagonist or antagonist, no hero, no heroine, no villain. Instead there is a group of people living their lives. Indeed, the novel reads much more as a series of short stories than a novel. There is no story ‘arc’ as such – no overriding plot. I don’t think this makes it any less enjoyable. However, it did prevent me from emotionally engaging with the characters to the extent that I did with Captain Corelli. None were given enough room and I didn’t get to spend enough time with any of them, I guess. That doesn’t mean I didn’t care at all, I did, just not so deeply.

So, do I have a new favourite novel? I think you can guess my answer (but here it is anyway): no. Does that mean I was disappointed? Not at all. I don’t expect anything to top Captain Corelli, not even something written by the same author, because it had such an impact on me. I enjoyed Notwithstanding. It did pretty much what I expected it to. As I said when I reviewed Black Swan, that is not a bad thing.

If you like Louis de Bernieres’ writing style, or haven’t read him yet and would like a ‘light’ introduction, I highly recommend you read Notwithstanding. Well here’s a link, what are you waiting for?

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