From the very first pages to the last heartbreaking paragraphs, Clark’s gorgeous novel swept me away. Centering
on the fortunes of the Melville family, We That are Left is unapologetically emotional and impeccably written in the classic manner that mirrors the best of Edwardian fiction. Telling the kind of potent, many-sided story whose unforeseen complexities can only come courtesy of lives lived to the fullest, Clark focuses on three characters: sisters Jessica and Phyllis Melville, and Oskar “Oscar” Grunewald, a mathematics prodigy who seeks to win a scholarship to Oxford and is
the favored godson of Sir Aubrey Melville, who aches to save his grand estate of Ellinghurst from the ravages of the Great War.
Clark’s trademark intense, passionate, and lyrical prose plunges us deep into the pastoral surroundings of the Ellinghurst Estate with “castellated bastions” and its vast ivied walls,
where Sir Aubrey lives in semi-detached, fading grandeur with his long-suffering wife, Eleanor. The story begins in 1910 in a gorgeous bucolic setting. Jessica and Phyllis adore their brother, Theo, Sir Aubrey’s prodigal son and Eleanor’s favorite child. Young, handsome, laughing and teasing, Theo and his sisters, in the full blush of youth, have no idea how fragile their world is and no notion that they are about to become a lost generation.
In 1915, Theo is killed in action, his sudden death throwing the Melvilles into a tailspin. Growing older and greyer, “huddled inside their skins, like hand-me down overcoats,”
the family is offered a small measure of comfort in Oscar.
In these early sections, Clark recreates the period with great care. From Theo’s final, short letter
(covering less than a single page) in which he says the family “were not to worry about him,” to Oscar’s kindly mother, Mrs. Carey, who remembers wistfully her life with Oscar’s composer/artist father, to Phyllis, who enlists as a nurse in London, refusing to take any interest in the Ellinghurst Estate, to Jessica, who becomes almost “new-looking, so extravagantly, insistently shiny,” Clark
shows how the War seems to stop everything in its tracks. Everyone's lives get very serious very fast. One by one, all the young men in Jessica and Phyllis’ life--drawn by an unthinking combination of patriotism and naiveté--volunteer for what they think will be a few months of military service.
The reality of war, however, proves to be catastrophically different. With Theo gone, Sir Aubrey
is hijacked by Eleanor’s deep, dark grief and by the more practical matters of how to guarantee the survival of the vast Ellinghurst Estate, which it turns out is mortgaged to the hilt. Without the income from the farms, the family
struggle to meet their payments as well as the burden of their death duties. Oscar loves Ellinghurst and wants to live in a castle more than anything. Since childhood, he’s been entranced by Ellinghurst’s
foamy hedgerows and the vertiginous mast of Grandfather’s tower. But to
Cambridge Oscar goes, and onto a mathematics scholarship. Yet he always feels a
restlessness and an itch in the soles of his feet: Ellinghurst seems to be incessantly drawing on Oscar to return.
Clark is exceptional in the fluid way she converges her themes: the passionate feminism, the love story, the war years and what they lead to. She writes an exceptional romance, but it is a romance with lessons for our time as much as for the Melvilles. At first, Jessica seems the natural choice to take on Ellinghurst and to raise her children there, yet she refuses to be stuck in “the middle of nowhere with no one to talk to but Eleanor’s ghosts.”
Jessica never imagined she would leave Ellinghurst, “or not completely,” so she’s jarred to find herself working in London at a popular women’s magazine, dancing the nights away at an underground Soho club with Gerald, her new, older friend. Here she swallows
her shock at the club’s subversive sexual nature as she seeks to throw over the
fusty old rules and traditions, to spit in the eye of prudence and propriety.
While Clark’s focus is largely on Jessica and Oscar, Phyllis’s rebellious spirit is visible almost immediately as she clashes with Sir Aubrey over her dream of pursuing a career in archeology.
Her father opposes the situation because it might make her a potentially unmarriageable spinster. Phyllis is impatient, hungry for life and for learning.
She rages against the injustice that women acquire when they are married. No sooner, however, does Phyllis insist she never wants to marry anyone than handsome, sensitive Oscar reconnects with her. Kindred intellectual spirits of sorts, the union between them is immediately clear: theirs is an intimacy borne not just of history but of understanding. Yet Phyllis is not sentimental, and she never understands why people cling
so passionately to objects such as Ellinghurst.
Abruptly the Great War ends, “ripping open the earth like a sinkhole,” sucking Theo down and Ellinghurst with it. The grief continues to encase Clark’s characters--especially Eleanor, who desperately turns to spiritualism to try to reconnect Theo, “no longer dead for as long as the War drags on.” Clark’s goal in writing We That are Left is to show, without any polite disguise, the agony of war to the individual and
its destructiveness to the human race. Though the conflict ends with so many of Clark’s characters emotionally paralyzed if not dead, their lives, as it turns out, are far from over.