Until I read the bit in Rebecca West’s This Real Night where one of the main characters dies, I’d never cried properly on a plane. I’ll admit to a bit of panicky sobbing during a bout of bad turbulence, but never before had I abandoned myself to full-on, uncontrollable weeping at 33,000 feet.
I won’t tell you which of the characters dies, because that would be a cruel spoiler, and I am hoping to persuade you to spend time with this strange, wonderful trilogy and the eccentric Aubrey family who live in its pages. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because This Real Night is the second book in the series and – like the unfinished third, Cousin Rosamund – was published posthumously (1984 and 1985 respectively). I often feel a twinge of guilt when I read a book that the author had not wanted published in his or her lifetime: it seems somehow disrespectful. West, who died at the age of 90 in 1983, had had at least two decades to change her mind about these two if she’d wanted to. But in this case I didn’t even hesitate. As soon as I’d finished the first book, The Fountain Overflows (1957), I was sucked into the second like air into a vacuum.
The three books together were to be known, somewhat hubristically, as ‘The Saga of the Century’; in fact they only cover the first half of the twentieth century, not least because the second half hadn’t yet happened. They are West’s fictionalized autobiography, narrated in the first person by Rose, who is a young girl when The Fountain Overflows begins. We do not immediately learn her exact age and only eventually do we work out that her sister Mary is her twin – West doesn’t bother much with external details, she just plunges the reader straight into the peculiar life of the family.
This is the opening sentence: ‘There was such a long pause that I wondered whether my Mamma and my Papa were ever going to speak to one another again.’ Papa is
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