With Notwithstanding I got the confirmation that Louis de Bernières knows how to push all my right buttons. My tolerance for sugariness is relatively low, but at the same time it doesn’t take much to get me all teary. It’s just that my sarcastic self kicks in when authors are bluntly trying to get an emotional response. But de Bernières knows what he’s doing. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I read two years ago, was one of those books that got under my skin: I laugher, I cried and for a while I thought about it constantly. It entered directly into my top 10 of all time and I’ve been afraid to re-read it for fear I wouldn’t feel the same about it.

Notwithstanding has the same qualities that made Captain Corelli so brilliant, but with a softer touch and about a softer topic. It’s a collection of stories about an English village in the 60s and 70s that de Bernières calls Notwithstanding. These stories are based on his own childhood memories and you can feel his tenderness for the people he talks about by the way he describes their eccentricities and gentle insanity. You’ll meet a spiritualist who lives with the ghost of her husband, an old lady who likes nothing better than to shoot squirrels, and (a personal favorite) the village’s self-proclaimed “last peasant”. In the book’s afterword, de Bernières mentions exactly this very British ability to accept such eccentricities with remarkable good grace:

Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum.  That is one of the things that distinguishes us among the nations. We have a flexible conception of normality. We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough.  We are not so tolerant of small ones.  Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree.

🙂

You cannot help but love the people of Notwithstanding and wish you also lived there. However, there is also an unescapable sense of nostalgia: this is an England who has disappeared or is on the verge of disappearing. Indeed, some stories are crushingly bitter sweet, as we see old people deal with the fading of their way of life. It leaves them in a world they do not recognize or understand and with which they struggle to cope. For instance, one of the best stories is about a boy who, in exchange for peanutbutter sandwiches, agrees to try to fish the mythical Girt Pike from the pond of the village’s Beauty. When we are introduced to this boy, he’s fishing with his friends in the village’s pond, but later we are told that now the pond has a fence around it, because city folk who moved to Notwithstanding were afraid their kids might fall in. You get the feeling that a part of the village’s life died right there, when those fences we put up. (By the way, he heroically manages to fish the Girt PiKe, and from hence forth becomes known as the “the boy who caught the Girt Pipe” and when he grows up he is “the man who caught the Grit i when he was a boy”.)

In the book, these newcomers from the city are invaders who plant the seeds of change in these villages, and de Bernières has no problem in criticizing them and in some of the stories he outright makes fun of their naivety:

They moved here in search of picture postcard England and are uncomfortable with a real countryman who knows how to wring the neck of a chicken and has no compunction about drowning kittens in a bucket.

Each story can be read separately, but are connected by a set of Notwithstanding characters who reappear throughout the book, building up a picture of the whole community. There’s stories about growing up, falling in love, breaking your heart, madness, poverty and death. All written with extreme gentleness.

If you grew up in a village – any village, anywhere – or, like myself, you spent endless summer in one, you will easily recognize some of these people. However, there is something about this particular place that is unique to England. Notwithstanding, as de Bernières points out, represents “the England that the English used to love, when England was still loved by the English”.

PS: One other reason why I love this book is that the cover was designed by Rob Ryan who has a style right up my alley. I’ve been coveting one of his creations for a while now: one of his papercuts was screenprinted onto fabric ready to be cut out and made into this skirt. Isn’t it cute?

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