1955 begins the nostalgic yearly sojourn of the Jones family, an August camping trip that becomes the family’s regular retreat from London to Wales, where they erect a tent in a field of Hugh Evans’ family farm. Everything about this vacation from city life feels serendipitous, from Aldous Jones’ biking accident wherein he is tossed onto the field, to the hearty welcome with which the farmer greets his surprising visitor.
An exuberant man with a penchant for country biking tours, Aldous views the world from a friendly perspective, finding opportunity where others may not, thrilled to return each August with his family. They set up their soft-sided shelter with a growing brood, from firstborn Janus, a gifted musician, to James, Juliette and Julian: “Not for the first time he felt the power of the landscape resided in its ability to unglue you from the world.”
Aldous’ wife, Colette, is of an equally pleasant temperament, marshaling her children for hiking, biking and camping, the breathtaking beauty of the Welsh countryside a panacea for whatever troubles burden the family the other months of the year. Like most family histories, the early days are filled with unexpected moments of joy and shared experience, Collete observing her children’s progress, each August a harbinger of more changes.
The eldest, Janus, is extraordinarily gifted. Creatively nurtured, he seems destined for a career as a brilliant pianist, his parents providing every advantage in this endeavor. Surprisingly Janus, as a young man on the cusp of his future, delivers the first blow to the family’s routine, refusing to accompany them one summer in the mid-1960s, exhibiting a stubborn independence that clashes with the opportunities of his charmed life.
And with the death of her elderly mother while they are on holiday, Colette, the reliable, stable fulcrum of the Jones family, shows the inevitable cracks of time, her children separating inexorably from their need for her, the predictability of their August adventures threatened by her unraveling. Progress makes its inevitable mark on the bucolic retreat, fifteen summers of change from Aldous’ first impulsive, if dangerous, encounter with farmer Evans’ hospitality to the loss of interest by the children.
The writing is exquisite, the plot deceptively simple, reflecting the indifferent march of progress, the Jones’s memories etched in the passage of time. The three weeks in August that begin so joyfully are gradually eroded by attrition and changing motivations, by Colette’s withdrawal from marriage and children, and the children’s interest in life in the larger world.
The precious days of intimacy in Wales succumb to other demands, a family slowly wrecking on the shoals of progress: “The thought occurred to Aldous that one’s life was a series of little deaths, particularly the life of a child as observed by its parent.”