The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 16 August 2017

The Valley of Bones

A Dance to the Music of Time, No. 7

by Anthony Powell

After the ominous foreshadowing of the previous novel, World War 2 is finally upon us in the seventh of Anthony Powell's twelve-volume epic journey through the first half of the 20th century. As the book opens, it is the day after our hero, Nick Jenkins, has been inducted as an officer in the British army. He is soon sent to a remote posting in Northern Ireland, where he begins his tenure as the head of a small platoon. Immediately, the tone of this novel is a little different than those previous. Nick is thrown in with a large number of new characters, a diverse and unknown group, unlike the long-term friends and family of the earlier books. The early pages, too are strung with poignant moments and a dry absurdist British humor of army life. Despite the ominous title (and its attendant explanation early in the novel) this book resides more in the quiet backwaters of army life in 1940, when the German advance seemed inexorable, but as yet not desperately threatening. Along with Nick and his fellow soldiers, we are waiting for the next chapter.

Nick meets his fellow soldiers and makes his quiet way through the daily routines and routine annoyances of army life. He misses his wife, Isobel, who is hugely pregnant with their first child. Yet, Nick's personal life occurs just off-stage, for the most part. The events in the story come from conversations Nick has with the people who pass through his life, the Dance... within the subtitle to this book. There is an understated brilliance to all of this, though. Powell's craft has an effortless grace that glides seamlessly from meeting to meeting, recollection to remembrance, foreboding to notable event. Soldiers miss their friends and family. Trysts are arranged with the women in the nearby villages. Hearts are broken, sometimes with grave results, but most often in that quiet way which we all experience in life, at one time or another. Eventually, Nick has an opportunity to spend a weekend with a number of characters we've met in previous novels. He visits Isobel at the home of Frederica, who is now engaged to Dicky Umfraville. Buster Foxe blunders in. Priscilla plays games with her daughter. There are reflections on Nick's lost love with Jean Templar, a constant thread in this journey. Not a lot happens, expectations are made and broken. People we know spread apart again in the uncertain landscape of imminent war. Nick returns to his regiment, almost with relief, only to learn he is to be posted elsewhere. The characters he has met there, also, have their own destinies, and we're likely to see some of them again. In the meantime, he lets slip that some of the men we've met won't survive the early days of the war. And, in the end, when Nick moves on to a new assignment, the identity of his new commanding officer comes as little surprise to the attentive readers who have come this far with him.

While the novel rests here as a kind of interlude between peace and war, the forebodings of the previous installment are clearly heading to stories of greater import in later volumes. Powell's brilliance is in the immediate liveliness of his places and people. His characters are idiosyncratic and well-drawn. Their complaints are familiar to all of us. And the small events in their lives are grounded and realistic. This isn't a fantasy. It is a reflection of what makes this particular gathering of characters the kind of people they are, and the kind of lives that they lead.

[Mail John][To List]

Also by Anthony Powell: [A Question of Upbringing] [A Buyer's Market] [The Acceptance World ] [At Lady Molly's] [Casanova's Chinese Restaurant] [The Kindly Ones] [The Soldier's Art]